Real Life

Inspirational teacher proves cancer won’t slow her down

Plucky Christchurch Boys’ High School teacher Chris Todd is defying her doctors’ orders as she carries on fulfilling her bucket list.

Chris Todd is not one to shy away from a challenge – in fact, the Christchurch Boys’ High School maths teacher and athletics coach says she can be “pretty bloody-minded” at times.

It’s an attitude that over the years has seen her become the first-ever female captain of the University of Canterbury Athletics Cub, win the first-ever Christchurch marathon and rank fourth at the World Duathlon Championships.

It’s also the reason that she’s still alive, despite her doctors telling her to write her bucket list two years ago.

“My oncologist probably thinks I’ll come off my bike sooner than die of cancer!” says Chris, who still cycles more than 17km from her home in Sumner to school and back most days.

Chris has inoperable gastrointestinal neuroendocrine tumours (GINET) – the same kind of cancer Apple founder Steve Jobs famously fought using alternative and natural cancer treatments before his death in 2011.

While Jobs’ primary tumour was in his pancreas, Chris’ is in her digestive system. She looks the picture of health with shiny hair and glowing skin, but the 62-year-old also has 27 tumours in her liver.

“It’s frustrating – it slows you down,” Chris admits. “I was so competitive as a runner, if I heard someone coming up behind me, I’d always pick up the pace – especially if it was a guy running past! Now I just have to accept that people will pass me.”

With two of her students at a school prizegiving in 2014.

Chris first began feeling fatigued in November 2013, while training for a duathlon world champs in Spain. Her blood tests came back normal, but she knew something was wrong and in her determined fashion, pushed for further tests.

Sure enough, she was right, and in April the following year, a CT scan confirmed the worst.

“My liver specialist told me the cancer had spread through all my lobes so they couldn’t operate. I asked him, ‘How long am I going to be well?’ and he told me to write my bucket list. I said I wanted to cycle the Alpe d’Huez in France the next year, but he gave me a look which pretty much said ‘I don’t think you’ll be doing that.’”

But Chris wasn’t giving up.

With first-class honours in chemistry and a background in chemical engineering, she was able to wrap her head around scientific papers and eventually she came across her answer – peptide receptor radionuclide therapy (PRRT). The nuclear treatment delivers radiation directly to tumours through intravenous infusions.

Although it’s been available in Europe since the mid-1990s, it’s not funded or offered in New Zealand. Chris, who is single, flies to Melbourne on her own to receive treatment at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

It causes bad side effects – blisters on her feet from accompanying chemotherapy and days of vomiting after receiving amino acid infusions to protect her kidneys from radiation – but Chris says she firmly believes the treatment is how she’s still alive.

“I was hoping that my results from the PRRT were going to be so outstanding, I could take on Pharmac!” the go-getter laughs. “I still have it in me to take up the fight for others in New Zealand. I’ve saved Pharmac money by not taking their medications, so it’d be nice to get some assistance towards my choice.”

Though she still plans to pursue a subsidy for her treatment from Pharmac, Chris was blown away when staff and pupils raised $70,000 to pay for her past five treatments. She received a huge round of applause from her students when she walked into her classroom after her first lot.

“I have this philosophy,” tells Chris, “where I’m allowed to wallow in self-pity for five percent of the time and the other 95 per cent is spent planning the next battle. There are times when that five percent is pretty bad but you just have to say, ‘It is what it is,’ and if you’re spending five minutes with a group of teenage boys in a maths classroom, you soon get over yourself!”

Chris in hospital for her first treatment.

Last year, the popular teacher was also able to offer guidance to Christchurch Boys’ head boy Jake Bailey, who became an internet sensation after delivering a moving speech from his wheelchair while battling Burkitt’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I emailed Jake saying, ‘You don’t know the strength you’ve got until you have to find it,’” Chris tells. “I still feel like there’s plenty more I can do. Life’s worth fighting for!”

Last year, Chris did fulfil her dream of cycling the Alpe d’Huez. Despite her oncologist suggesting she spend her remaining time “enjoying coffee with friends”, she did it between treatments.

“I sent my specialist a photo from the top of the Alpe d’Huez with a note to say, ‘Just filling in time while I was waiting for treatment,’” she laughs.

The picture now hangs on the wall of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre to inspire others.

Hopefully, they’ve left space for another, with Chris now set to cycle between Geneva and Nice – a nine-day trip that includes 15 mountain climbs. It’s all part of her “95 per cent living to the max” theory.

Words: Anastasia Hedge

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