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Tragedy becomes power

New York Teacher
Tragedy becomes power
Erica Berger

UFT members at PS 204 are united in their fight against breast cancer.

Tanya Sumner
Erica Berger

Before her death in September, Tanya Sumner was a powerful advocate for awareness and funding for Stage 4 cancers.

Tanya Sumner, a teacher of English language learners at PS 204 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was just 36 years old in 2017 when she unexpectedly passed out behind the wheel of her car. Sumner, the mother of a 5-year-old girl and a 7-month-old boy, woke up in the hospital to a devastating diagnosis: Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, which had already spread to her spine and hips.

Sumner passed away in September 2019. In the short time between her diagnosis and her death, she became a powerful advocate in her school community for awareness and funding for Stage 4 cancers.

“There are so few people who could take such a terrible situation and turn it into something so powerful,” said Trisha Arnold, PS 204’s chapter leader. 

Sumner encouraged fellow staff members at PS 204 to practice self-care and screen themselves. 

“She was a working mom who had a lot on her plate, and she talked to us about how important it is for us as women to be conscious of our health, to have regular checkups, to know when something doesn’t feel right,” said Arnold.

Sumner also spurred the PS 204 community to rally their support around METAvivor, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about metastatic breast cancer. 

“There is very little funding for research and few treatments are available for metastatic breast cancer patients,” said PS 204 teacher Kathleen Conlon. “I had no knowledge of metastatic breast cancer before Tanya shared her journey with me.”

In March 2019, PS 204 members raised more than $1,000 for METAvivor at a gym fundraiser organized by PS 204 teacher Denise Agro. “Tanya was the most kind, caring, inspirational person I ever met in my life,” said Agro. “She just wanted to work and wanted to be with the kids.”

In October, PS 204 expanded its traditional pink ribbon display to include tricolor teal, pink and green ones — the colors representing metastatic breast cancer — in memory of Sumner.

“Tanya taught me so much about life and about facing the end of it,” said Conlon. “She wasn’t afraid, but she was sad. She had a lot left to do. Metastatic breast cancer robbed her of that chance.”

Arnold said the members of her chapter will continue to disseminate Sumner’s message. “We at PS 204 hope to carry on her passion for awareness and activism, and encourage other UFT members to do the same,” she said.