2017-04-08 / The Bullhorn

‘Rainy days, sunny days, they’re all the same’

Sara Coates and Madison Fuller
Bullhorn Report ers


Roxboro Community School math teacher Michael Gibson is pictured here with his daughter Naomi (far right) and RCS dance students Za’Teria Day, Joi Torian and Sydney Walker. This year’s Dance for Change raised money to help Gibson defray costs associated with his cancer treatment. RCS dance instructor Teresa Coleman coordinates the event each year to raise funds for causes chosen by her students. Roxboro Community School math teacher Michael Gibson is pictured here with his daughter Naomi (far right) and RCS dance students Za’Teria Day, Joi Torian and Sydney Walker. This year’s Dance for Change raised money to help Gibson defray costs associated with his cancer treatment. RCS dance instructor Teresa Coleman coordinates the event each year to raise funds for causes chosen by her students. Michael Gibson, a high school math teacher at Roxboro Community School (RCS), has been fighting the battle of a lifetime over the past few months after being diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, “an extremely rare and deadly form of cancer.”

Gibson’s journey with cancer began when he noticed pains in his stomach and side. The pain began under his rib, which he described as “noticeable, but not debilitating,” then it began to move everywhere and continued to worsen.

“In early December, I scheduled an MRI and I was thinking worst case scenario, I have gallstones. Then I was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma,” said Gibson.

Cholangiocarcinoma is a cancer of the liver bile ducts that typically affects the lining of one’s organs.

Gibson’s cancer is mostly in his liver, but has moved slightly into his abdominal area.

He said that “it has been stopped as much as it can be for now and seems to be holding steady there.

“They discovered that I had an elevated level of blood tumor markers, so they did a laparoscopy, and I then began to realize that this was going to be a lot worse than what it sounded like,” he continued. “It’s not a good sign when your surgeon comes in, grabs your hands, and gets on her knees with tears in her eyes. She said she was sorry, told me that I had stage four cancer, and my mind went numb.”

Gibson then received his chemotherapy port, which he calls “Captain Trips,” and he said that was when it all sunk in.

“I was in shock and denial for awhile. How does one deal with the fact that within a few weeks you went from being a pretty healthy person to realizing you only have six or seven months to live?” Gibson said.

“It’s truly jarring. I vividly remember when it became real though. I was lying on the operating table, looking at the light, and I couldn’t even hear what the nurses were saying.”

In addition to cholangiocarcinoma, Gibson also has Crohn’s disease, a disease of the colon and gut that affects the lining of the digestive tract, forcing one to have excessive bowel movements.

Before being diagnosed with cancer, Gibson’s Crohn’s disease was acting up, so he had begun taking steroids, a temporary fix to the incurable disease.

“I cycled off of the steroids during the summer and my Crohn’s came back with a vengeance,” said Gibson.

Then, with the Crohn’s back in full swing and the cholangiocarcinoma diagnosis, Gibson said that his body weight went from 190 pounds to 124 pounds.

“I lost between 60 and 70 pounds in just three months,” he said, “My doctors began to say that they couldn’t continue the chemotherapy because of my weight. Once I was able to get the Crohn’s under control, then I could deal with the cancer, but it has really been a two-front war.”

The five-year survival rate for someone with operable cholangiocarcinoma is about 24 percent, but for those with inoperable cholangiocarcinoma, like Gibson, the five-year survival rate is only two percent.

“This is where my math comes into place,” Gibson said. “That five-year survival rate is the median rate, but there is a bell curve in the equation. I just need to be a standard deviation away from the mean so that I can be one of those outliers. I don’t know how long the tail on that bell curve is, but it needs to be long. Please God, let it be long.”

When Gibson was diagnosed, he said there was an “immediate flashback” to his mom, who died of liver cancer. Gibson’s mother lived a “really difficult life” because of the abuse in their family. He described her as hardcore, without a soft side.

“On day one, my mother was doing OK, but she was sitting up and talking some. I could see the pain she was in, and not knowing any better, I was like, ‘Come on mom, you can fight this.’ But, by day two, I was having to help her drink from a straw, and by day three, I was having to spoon-feed her water. Then, she died that night,” said Gibson.

“I’ve seen my mom go through it, and I’m ready to go right now, I’ve already made my peace. I’m not going to be hanging onto life just to hang onto life,” he said.

Because Gibson’s father “never set a high bar” for him, he said that has driven him to be a much better father to his 10-year-old daughter, Naomi. He said breaking the news to her was hard.

“She screamed for the next 15 minutes and I made my promise to fight, like fathers do, but when you’re facing those dark moments, you wonder if you really can or not.”

“[Naomi] has just been great through all of this,” Gibson continued. “She and I go to counseling because I want to make sure she’s OK. We have to have a relationship that is built on honesty now; I try not to sugarcoat anything for her. Her biggest thing still seems to be 10-yearold drama, and as long as that’s her biggest worry, I’m happy.”

Gibson’s diet is crucial to his health, now more than ever, and since he loves to cook, Naomi has decided that her father needs to get well so they can open a restaurant together. Gibson said that’s one thing he’s fighting for. Another reason to fight is the support shown him by his colleagues and students.

He said he “just cannot express how touched” he has been by the love and support shown him by his RCS family.

Gibson is originally from Wilmington, Delaware, where he lived until he was about eight, when his mother made the decision to move the family away from his abusive father. They went to Las Vegas, Nevada because his mother had visited the city on a bowling trip just a year before.

Gibson said that “bowling literally saved [his] life” because it got him away from his dad, who he spoke to for the last time when he was in 10th grade.

During this time, Gibson saw success, participating in the National Spelling Bee as the Nevada State Champion and meeting First Lady Rosalynn Carter in the White House.

Gibson said when he was in high school, he was more focused on a career in business, but when he got his first job in college, working in admissions, his love for education evolved.

“You see that kids face so many disadvantages, so myself and a friend decided we wanted to start our own school. I was more interested in getting kids fired up academically, so I then made the decision to become a teacher,” said Gibson.

He chose the subject of math because he said, though it wasn’t his strongest suit, he thought it was a safer bet for him to teach math than history. Now, he feels that “most folks are unnecessarily afraid of math, when in reality it’s just another tool and way of understanding things.”

His goal is to try to get across the idea that math is nothing to be afraid of.

Gibson went from teaching as a substitute in California to teaching at a boarding school in New Jersey.

After five years in New Jersey, he began to look for a change, which was when he discovered Cary Academy in North Carolina. After several years there and at Kestrel Heights Charter School, Gibson learned of a job opportunity at RCS.

“I looked at the advertisement for RCS about three or four times before finally deciding to send in an application.

“When I came for my interview, I wasn’t expecting much, because I was in the middle of nowhere, and I even got lost, but when I finally arrived, I was like, ‘Wow, look at this place.’”

Gibson said that he was having second thoughts, but on his first day, he heard more “yes sirs and no sirs” than he had heard in his entire 23 years of teaching, which he says truly sold him on the school.

Shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, he had a New Year’s party.

He said that he was about 130 pounds at this point, so he had to lie down and rest mid-party, but when he woke up, Darkarai Bryant, RCS high school principal, was standing over him.

“I was like ‘Oh man, I better recover.’ It’s not a good sign when your boss is standing over your bed,” Gibson said with a laugh.

“But really, he was only there to be supportive. My point is, this entire time, he has been wonderful.”

The RCS dance classes participate in Dance for Change, a benefit performance created to give students an opportunity to use their talents to make a difference in the lives of others. This year, they dedicated the program to Gibson, and donated all of the money raised to him.

Charissa Denny, another math teacher at RCS, and her husband, went to Gibson’s home to share the news with him.

“They brought a bunch of books, filled with the coloring pages that I love, and showed me a video of the dancers announcing their decision. It took eight or 10 times for me to watch the video without crying,” said Gibson.

The show “blew me away,” said Gibson. “Every time they said my name, my daughter grabbed my hand, squeezed it, and beamed into my eyes. Just to be able to share that with her and leave that impression seared into her head made it worth everything.”

“If I had dropped dead [after the show] that night, I would’ve died on top of the world,” he said.

Gibson said he was excited to be a part of Dance for Change, and hoped to be for many years to come.

“I think that this year may have been something special for the students because it was more tangible. It has certainly made all the difference to me, and my friends think it’s so awesome. You don’t understand how blessed I am,” he told Bullhorn reporters.

“I’m so happy to get to RCS most days that I get tears in my eyes.”

Gibson said his experience has “really grounded” him.

“It’s very hard for people, especially me, to ask for help and to be a receiver of it. People genuinely want to help you and you just have to be accepting and understanding of that. You have to realize that it does not entail any kind of weakness. I’ve always thought of myself as independent, but once you put that aside, everything seemed to come a lot easier. Letting my guard down was liberating,” said Gibson.

He said that he has been emotionally, spiritually, and physically transformed because of his situation and is just thankful to continue to wake up every morning.

“Every day is like a blessing to me and I just want to spread that feeling and that love; I made a promise to God that I would. I know this is a test, a chance for me to realize that I’ve made an impact. I tell myself that has to be why this is happening to me. Whatever time God has granted me, he just can’t take me away now because I need to impact more lives,” said Gibson.

He said that he has accepted his diagnosis as a gift; an opportunity to make a lifestyle change. He believes that people can live life one of two ways, out of fear or out of love, “and only recently have I started to live out of love,” said Gibson.

“Rainy days, sunny days, they’re all the same to me, and that’s literally how I’ve started living my life,” Gibson concluded, “I’d rather live a year like this than for 10 years the way I was.”

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