Melissa Barr has been an elementary school teacher in Cheatham County for more than 17 years. Before she began her career in the traditional classroom, Melissa taught karate alongside her husband Richard. The 58-year-old educator is stepping outside of her first-grade classroom to share the life-changing lessons she learned while fighting ovarian cancer during the pandemic.
A lifelong yoga devotee and a healthy eater, Melissa was surprised when she began experiencing stomach pains and unexplained bloating, but assumed nothing was seriously wrong. With the first wave of the pandemic raging, she assumed that the responsible thing to do was hold off on visiting a doctor. In December 2020, Melissa’s stomach pain was so severe that she knew she couldn’t delay care any longer. She thought that she might have a urinary tract infection and was surprised when the doctor recommended a CAT scan. That scan revealed the staggering news that Melissa had stage 3 ovarian cancer. “I was shocked and almost angry that I had done everything ‘right’ and still received this diagnosis,” she recalls.
Over the following months, Melissa received three rounds of traditional chemotherapy, became the first ovarian cancer patient in Tennessee to receive an innovative treatment called Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy, and then finally completed another three rounds of traditional chemotherapy. Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy (HIPEC) is also known as “hot chemotherapy” because it involves heating a standard dose of chemotherapy and applying it directly to the abdomen to increase penetration of cancerous tissues. HIPEC has more frequently been used by surgical oncologists to manage cancers of the abdomen, but gynecological oncologists Dr. Jason Barnett and Dr. Michael Stany made state history by employing this technique in Melissa’s treatment at Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital Midtown on February 17, 2021.
Today, Melissa’s cancer is in remission. She has returned to teaching first-grade and loves spending time outside the classroom with Richard, her husband of 41 years, and their close-knit family. But her cancer journey has forever changed her approach to education and to life. Dr. Barnett and Dr. Stany often connect new patients with Melissa so that she can impart her hard-earned wisdom. She tells them: “Yes, cancer is hard. The hardest part, though, is knowing that your family has to witness your sickness first-hand. My sweet husband stood by my side and told me every day how beautiful I was even with my hair loss. Yes, I was the ‘sick one,’ but my whole family was on his journey with me.”
It’s no surprise that this passionate educator also has advice that extends beyond cancer. She says, “Whether it’s cancer or addiction or something else, everyone has a story. Reach out to others and let them know that you’re thinking of them. Just say ‘I’m here if you need me.’ Stop being afraid to reach out.”