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Middleton Elementary third-grade teacher returns to school, amid breast cancer battle, to say goodbye

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The end of the school year is often an emotional time for teachers and students because of the fact that it’s time to say goodbye. 

However, June 5, the last day of school, was an exceptionally emotional day for Middleton Elementary teacher Joan Hochman who returned to the school after being gone since April. 

Hochman left in April after being diagnosed with breast cancer in order to undergo treatment. 

“That was the worst thing,” she said. “It’s still hard because I just love those kids – they’re such a wonderful, caring class. 

“How could I not go back and see them?”

However, Hochman was able to make the triumphant return to school last Friday. 

“As a teacher you grow attached to these kids,” she said. “They become part of your family.” 


The first time Hochman was diagnosed with breast cancer was actually 15 years ago, during her first year of teaching at Middleton. 

“Now, almost to the day, by one day, I was re-diagnosed,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it.” 

The cancer was found in one of Hochman’s lymphnodes. 

“They think there’s a slight possibility, a very rare chance, that a cancer cell got away and got into my lymphnode,” she said. 

Hochman was told that she had stage four, which means that a cure is unlikely. 

“My diagnosis was not good, so it was very hard at the beginning,” she said. “The good news was that they found it nowhere else in my body, so now they’re trying for a cure.

“I’m a very hopeful and cheerful person, so all I’m going for is a cure.” 


Despite the difficulty of hearing the diagnosis, Hochman said, learning that she couldn’t return to school to say goodbye to her students was just as hard. 

Given that her immune system was down, Hochman had the risk of catching disease within the school. 

“There are just too many germs within the building,” she said. “For my doctor to tell me that I could never see my students again was heartbreaking.” 

Even though Hochman was able to Skype with her students and write back and forth, not seeing them and saying a proper goodbye was difficult. 

It was so difficult in fact that Hochman decided to try one last time. 

“I went to my oncologist and said to her: ‘The only word I want to hear out of your mouth is yes;  if I’m outside, I’m nowhere near the building and I don’t touch the kids at all can I go see them?’” she said, “and she said yes. 

“Getting the OK that I could be outside the school was such a joy because I’ve been wanting to see them all the while.” 

During last week’s visit, Hochman was able to give “air hugs” to her students in addition to handing out gift bags to her students. 

Hochman’s students also performed a play that they had written for her. 

Hochman will be going through her treatment into next year, so returning to school is still unknown, which is why last Friday meant to much to her. 

“You just grow with these kids all year,” she said. “I needed to be able to see them one last time because I won’t be able to come back in the fall and we’re not sure if I’ll be able to come back at all. 

“I just needed closure.” 


Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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