CLEARWATER - Lynne Cole began her fourth round of chemotherapy Monday, but after successfully landing a space shuttle and navigating a lunar landing base this summer, the 52-year-old middle school science teacher said she is ready for the toughest mission she will ever face.
The Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy program is meant to give everyday teachers a feel for the life-and-death experiences astronauts face in space, but for Cole, the weeklong vacation to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., came right as she began the fight of her life.
Cole, who teaches at Skycrest Christian School in Clearwater, was diagnosed with cancer a few days before Thanksgiving, a month after she applied to space camp and a few weeks before she found out she was accepted out of thousands of applicants. She doesn't know what stage the cancer is in because doctors have yet to find the primary source, but there are spots on her liver and lungs.
Cole faces another six doses of chemo over nine weeks. The treatments make her tired, food tastes bland, her hair has fallen out, and the disease has created blood clots in her left leg and lungs. Living with the illness, though, has taught her invaluable lessons.
"My dad died when I was 12 of leukemia, so I had to watch my mom and my brother deal with that," Cole said. "So I like to say one of the gifts in this is that I get to face my biggest fear. I'm a Christian, so I pray a lot for healing, for peace, endurance, and to see things the way God sees them and not be trapped in my little world. Most of all I pray, 'God, don't let me waste this. Whatever you want me to do or learn, help me do it well and not be curled up in a little ball the whole time.' "
The camp, held from June 22-26, proved to her that she can overcome anything, Cole said. After submitting a lengthy essay application, Cole was one of 210 teachers from 27 countries and 42 states to be awarded a five-day, all-expenses-paid stay at the space camp. The program not only lets teachers participate in astronaut training on equipment that simulates the sensation of floating in zero gravity or being aboard a tumbling aircraft, it also provides a suitcase full of science, technology, engineering and math lessons to bring back to their schools.
Cole's team of 12 teachers - some from Mexico, Turkey, China and Australia - learned how to build robots, water filtration devices and rockets with their students while also putting their bodies to the test with training exercises and 14-hour days. The only activity that gave her pause was a climb up a tall ladder in a full space suit and heavy boots during a mock lunar landing: The blood clot in her left leg makes it painful to walk and bend, but she did it.
"When I found out I got accepted I didn't know if I could go, but I got a scan back showing that all of my tumors are shrinking, and one has completely disappeared, and I decided to go for it," Cole said.
"Sometimes with cancer it feels like your body is betraying you, but my big takeaway from camp was that my body can still work, can still take care of me, and I don't have to feel so out of control. I can still have fun."
Cancer is slowing down Cole. She is spending the rest of the summer creating lessons with the materials she got at space camp for the upcoming school year. She hopes to create a robotics team at school and is studying to also become a certified math teacher. She still goes to the gym with her husband three times a week and has begun blogging.
In the not too distant future, the Clearwater native hopes to build a house on land owned by her family near the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. The family will vacation there this month.
The only thing Cole won't be doing is researching her cancer and her chances of being cured. It's a "fight of faith" that's helped her learn to live one day at a time and appreciate her school of 440 students even more.
For the last two months of school, Cole's family received meals each night from students and even strangers, she said. Younger students that she hasn't even taught yet greet her by name when they see her walk by. When she began wearing her University of Florida baseball cap to school to cover her bald head, faculty planned a surprise "Hats Off to Mrs. Cole Day," where the entire school was allowed to wear a hat in addition to their uniforms.
Since she began teaching at Skycrest in 2001, Cole has taught the children of her school administrator, assistant principal and pastor. They all say she's the favorite.
"She's one of those teachers that constantly has kids who have graduated coming back to see her, and kids can smell a rat before anybody," said school administrator Steven Clagg. "Kids know teachers, they know the heart and Lynne has heart. I think they really didn't realize the severity of her type of cancer, and I think it's just now starting to hit home. When they see how long she's had this and how positive and upbeat she still is, they all look at her like she's a hero."
Despite the uncertainty surrounding his wife's health, John Cole said she hasn't changed since they met about 28 years ago at the same Clearwater YMCA where they work out each week. Both were training to be lifeguards, and it was just by chance that John happened to be called in for a group meeting on his way out the door. There was Lynne, he said, "telling everybody everything she knew."
"I said, 'Let's see what happens when she gets in the water,' because I'm athletic and that's where I really shine, and she blew me away," Cole said. "I knew right then. I said, 'How am I going to keep up with that?' "
They married within months of meeting.
"She pulls out the best in people, even now," Cole said. "I'll never stop chasing after her."