MICHIGAN CITY — For Halloween this year, pink became the new orange at Pine Elementary School.
The school’s Student Council hosted a special Wear Pink fundraiser on Oct. 31 for sixth-grade teacher Iris Curbelo, who is battling breast cancer while pregnant with her fourth child. To wear pink, each student paid $1, with all the money collected being donated to Curbelo and her family.
Andrea (Andie) Renner-Miller, a paraprofessional in Pine’s Special Education Department, said the school has held similar fundraisers for various causes in the past, but this is the first time it was in support of a staff member.
“All the kids love her [Curbelo],” Renner-Miller said. “We knew that we wanted to include them. We’re a family at Pine.”
Curbelo, 37, was coming back from a short getaway trip on Mother’s Day weekend when she first noticed a breast abnormality. At first she thought it might be related to her pregnancy – the due date for her son is Dec. 31. But it rapidly increased in size, and she was diagnosed in August with Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
“It’s an aggressive form of breast cancer – that’s why it grew so fast in so little time,” Curbelo said.
Once her implantable chest port was ready, she began chemotherapy within a few weeks.
“They went into full force. They didn’t waste any time,” she said.
Curbelo’s treatment plan includes 12 sessions of chemotherapy every 21 days. Due to her pregnancy, she has to stay in the hospital for four to five days with a 24-hour continuous drip during each session. To complicate matters, immediately after her last treatment, Curbelo had to stay in the hospital for an additional three weeks with a severe case of tonsillitis.
Unfortunately, she was tested and diagnosed as a carrier of the BRCA gene, which means “it’s very likely to come back as breast cancer or ovarian cancer,” she said. Consequently, she faces a double mastectomy and removal of her ovaries in the future.
Curbelo is currently 32 weeks along in her pregnancy, and doctors have planned a delivery date for just before Thanksgiving.
Originally from East Chicago, Curbelo lives in La Porte with her husband, Victor, and three children: Ivyanna, 15, a sophomore at La Porte High School; Chloe, an 8-year-old third-grader at Crichfield Elementary School in La Porte; and Isaiah, who is 3.
She’s a U.S. Army veteran, having served for eight years in logistics during Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom.
She received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Purdue North Central, and has six years of experience teaching elementary grades in East Chicago, and at Crichfield Elementary School, before joining the staff at Pine for the 2018-19 school year.
“I got care packages from Andie, and I felt so blessed,” said Curbelo. “It’s my first year there and to get all this support is absolutely amazing. For her and the school to be so caring – it just blew my mind.”
Renner-Miller has been busy behind the scenes setting up a regular schedule of times that Pine staff members reach out to Curbelo. She said her colleague’s diagnosis of breast cancer is especially poignant for her – her mother, Paula Renner, passed away in March 2018 after a brief battle against stage four breast cancer. She was also the cancer tumor registrar at La Porte Hospital for many years.
Staff members at Pine sent cards to Curbelo and some stepped up to assist their colleague in other ways. In addition to the Wear Pink fundraiser, Renner-Miller said a T-shirt sale, initially for staff but possibly for students and their families in the future, along with a spaghetti dinner are in the works.
Curbelo said her previous school families have also reached out. And her family has been an ever-present help with her children, meal preparation, household chores and other tasks, though distance can be a challenge as they all live in Lake County.
“My family is my rock – my army,” she said.
Challenges are nothing new to the family – Victor recently lost his job and is currently looking for employment.
“We were a two-income family and went down to one,” Curbelo said, though they felt it best for her not to return to teaching this school year after her diagnosis, coupled with her pregnancy. “We are trying to get by.”
Renner-Miller said the pink event brought in a total of $804.47, with additional donations still filtering in.
“We have had a lot of parents send in extra money,” she said. “One parent paid for the whole class to wear pink. Some kids asked if they could give some of their own money.”
Anyone interested in helping the Curbelo family can do so at paypal.me/pools/c/8jyOjojfmF or by sending donations to “Team Iris c/o Pine Student Council, 1660 County Line Road, Michigan City, IN 46360.”
“I really appreciate that more than anything,” Curbelo said. “You don’t understand until you go through this. And, this is more common than you think.
“There are days that I’m so physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. I know that we will get through this. We are taking it day by day. I pray and remember, as my mom says, to give it to God – that He will take care of everything.”