East Cleveland History: KIRK

Chambers Elementary School East Cleveland

Whelan with his sons, Sean and TomNationally recognized educator Joe Whelan ’65 battles stage four prostate and bone cancer and lymphoma

By John Walsh

T hrough the ’70s and ’80s, Joe Whelan ’65 helped poor black children overcome societal obstacles to develop a solid educational foundation during his 22-year career as the principal of Chambers Elementary school in East Cleveland, Ohio. In 1986, Chambers became the first all-black school to earn a blue ribbon distinction from the U.S. Department of Education. Whelan’s success was recognized nationally by then-Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well as then-Secretary of Education Bill Bennett.

But recently, near the end of his professional education career – with his own consulting company, Whelan International, working with teachers and principals – Whelan is overcoming a huge obstacle of his own. It’s cancer, specifically stage four prostate and bone cancer and lymphoma. In April 2014, when Whelan last worked as a consultant with the Euclid (Ohio) City Schools, he started to experience bone pain after playing golf in Naples, Fla.

“My general physician said it was a strained back, and the pain should go away in a week, ” he says.

The pain continued for 55 straight days, during which Whelan rarely slept. The following month he went to the emergency room where doctors told him the pain was in his muscles. After two more trips to a general physician and orthopedic surgeon, who both misdiagnosed him, Whelan saw a chiropractor who said the pain was in his bones. Eventually, he saw an oncologist who told him he had prostate cancer that metastasized to his lymph nodes and bones. Treatment, which started in May 2014, was twofold – chemotherapy and hormone therapy. The hormone therapy, which consisted of taking a pill daily and receiving a shot every three months, began May 15. The chemotherapy occurred every 21 days from July 23 to Nov. 5.

Whelan with Maggie Dwyer Niedzwiecki '93, who was in the first class he taught at JCU in 1991The results of a CAT scan, which occurred every three months, showed cancerous tumors in his lymph nodes and bones. The tumors, which were as big as M&M candies, contained one million cancer cells each. And Whelan had about 50 tumors. Scans can show if tumors are breaking up as a result of treatment. Whelan, who was the commencement speaker at John Carroll in 1991, experienced 14 side effects with his first treatment.

Once his former Chambers students found out about his cancer on Facebook, they prayed for him. Many of those students are now lawyers, judges, teachers, principals, and even chefs. In fact, Bennett, who Whelan became good friends with, called Whelan to voice his concern and encouragement when he heard Whelan had cancer.

After each chemotherapy treatment, Whelan recuperated at his sister Cathy Whelan’s home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. After a week, he would return to his home in Euclid. While at home, he also received support from his two sons – Sean, the director of technology at West Geauga High School, and Tom, an electrician.

“I cooked my own meals and was losing a lot of weight, ” he says. “I had been eating so healthy that I was losing too much weight. I was on an acid alkaline balanced diet (I didn’t eat meat and drank almond milk), which my sister was on. I thought the diet was crazy. When you’re on it, you really watch your glycemic load.”

Whelan was eating a lot of fish and vegetables and drinking smoothies. As a result of that diet, he quit experiencing many of the bad side effects from the chemo treatments.

During his battle with cancer, Whelan kept a journal about his experience, but dwelling on this made it difficult to sleep.

“I was obsessed with cancer, so my oncologist said stop journaling and do things I like, so I returned to the golf course and spent as much time as possible with my four granddaughters.”

To combat the effects of the chemo, Whelan also took two steroids, prednisone and dexamethasone, that increased his sugar levels, which were checked frequently. When he stopped the chemo treatments in November, he also stopped taking the steroids and sugar pills. As such, he was able to enjoy a libation. He’s also cut back on exercise – walking and jogging – and replaced those activities with a relaxing routine of yoga and meditation.

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