For Lisette Caesar, a bell marked the beginning of the end of a painful journey that started almost a year ago.
Caesar is the principal of Mosaic Prep Academy, an elementary school that she founded 12 years ago in Harlem. Last May while getting ready to celebrate another successful school year, she fell ill, so sick she was barely able to pick up her doctoral degree. Immediately after, she landed in the hospital ER, where a misdiagnosis nearly killed her.
"Four months of being told I had diverticulitis and taking medicine for diverculitis, which actually made me very sick," she said. "Wasn't able to eat for months, and kept throwing up everything that would go down, and I lost 40 pounds in two months."
Finally, in August, a new doctor determined it was colon cancer, requiring yet more surgery and seven grueling months of chemotherapy.
"She's demonstrated how strong she is. She is trying to be an advocate for colon cancer and kind of share her story with the world," said Aaliyah Caesar, Lisette's sister. "A lot of people kind of just kind want to crawl in a hole and kind of just deal with it, and she's the complete opposite. So it really makes me happy to say she’s my sister."
From the beginning of her ordeal, Caesar decided to turn her experience into a teaching moment about the importance of early screening and, though weak from the chemo, she helped to raise money for the cause even as her health insurance was running out. She was even recognized with a citation by the Brooklyn Boro President. But all the while, she was aching to get back to her kids.
"I say that the kids are my heartbeats," she said. "I don't have any children of my own, and so my 25 years of service to the Department of Education, every child I've interfaced with has become my own child. And so it's really just part of my life, part of my extended family. So it's been really hard not being there."
She had planned a great celebration with the bell ringing to mark the end of chemotherapy, but the coronavirus forced her to keep it simple, thanking her doctors and nurses before heading back home, where Caesar couldn't resist a victory march. Surrounded by family, and friends, she hosted a party complete with custom-printed cookies, some spiritual help, and a special gift for the doctor she credits with saving her life.
"It's really humbling and rewarding to hear that," her doctor said. "It's the reason why I get up at 5 a.m. in the morning and go to work and leave work at 8 at night. It just makes it all worth it."
With chemo behind her now, Caesar's got big plans once she's finally able to return to school. She's even teamed up with an outspoken cancer doctor, another powerhouse who’s more than ready to join the fight.
"She is a colorectal cancer warrior, soon to be survivor, and together, we've just been trying to tackle the world and let people know what's going on," the doctor said.