Breast cancer teaches educator to appreciate life’s moments

A Columbus East High School teacher’s 2017 has brought into sharp relief just what a blessed man he is. He has the family life and career he’s cherished for years and participates in hobbies he’s enjoyed for a long time as well.

However, there’s a new backdrop to this life that reminds Tony Pottorff how valuable every moment is.

The native of Indianapolis’ south side has taught social studies at East for 17 years. He’s married to his high school sweetheart. His daughters are flourishing in their activities.

In the midst of this normalcy, a small new development presented itself.

“Probably for a year, I felt a lump under my left nipple,” he said. “I had banged it against something. After that, when I’d brush it against something, like a narrow doorway, I’d notice an irritation.”

He had no reason to think it was of great significance. As an adopted child, Pottorff did not have access to his full medical history. However, his health had been generally good throughout his life.

“I’d had basal-cell disease on my face, but that was pretty easily taken care of, and I’d had a hernia,” Pottorff said.

In May 2017, his wife took note of the lump and expressed her concern. He went to see his family physician, Eric Poplin at St. Francis. Dr. Poplin arranged for him to have an ultrasound of his left breast and armpit at Columbus Regional Hospital. Based on the result of that, Dr. Poplin told Pottorff he was “99 percent sure it was cancer” and told him to get a biopsy.

The biopsy was performed at Community South in Greenwood. That was followed by a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, which confirmed the cancer diagnosis. He had been scheduled for an MRI the following day, but that never happened.

“About 6:45 on the evening of the day I had my PET scan, I was going to Dairy Queen to get something to eat and the phone rang,” he said. “It was a lady at Community South. She said, ‘You don’t need to come in tomorrow. The cancer has spread enough that we know what we’re dealing with. It’s beyond my professional scope to tell you any more.’ Within an hour, I got hold of my doctor.”

Cancer was present in the breast and lymph nodes, both lungs (“barely there, but present”) and his left hip.

The close-knit family reeled from the news. Pottorff said the most heart-wrenching aspect of telling everyone was the fact that his daughter was on a field trip to Costa Rica with her Spanish class. Pottorff and his wife opted to wait until she returned to inform her, which they did on the ride home from the airport.

His cancer is Stage 4 — meaning it has spread to distant parts of the body — and HER2 positive. HER2 positive status is found in about 1 in 5 breast-cancer patients, and it means that the cells have greater than normal presence of a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2. That extra protein causes the cancer to grow fast compared to situations involving a normal level of it.

Pottorff’s treatment program at this point doesn’t include chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.

“I’m doing immunotherapy, which is basically hormones,” he said. “There are two types I go to Greenwood to take, plus a daily pill. As long as my body responds to that, that’s what they’ll continue to do.”

As of mid-August, his breast tumor had shrunk from 4 centimeters to half a centimeter.

He’d been a runner for some time, and has continued running since his diagnosis. In fact, he coaches cross-country at Northside Middle School. He eats the same things — and the same amounts — as he had.

Always an avid reader, Pottorff said he’s increased his consumption of books. Lately, his reading list has included a lot of works on cancer and Christian faith.

The family attends First Christian Church in Columbus, and Pottorff’s wife, Margie, said the support from that community has been considerable.

“We’ve always known how amazing our church family is, but during this time the love we’ve been shown has been breathtaking,” she said. “We’ve received prayer shawls for each member of the family. They’ve provided food. They organized Sunday night group prayers in which everyone reads the same Scripture passages in their homes at the same time.”

Margie Pottorff sees her husband as a strong and vibrant partner through all this.

“He’s always been very strong in his faith,” she said. “He’s an awesome leader for our family. I was 15 when we met, and he was a year and a half older. We’ve been best friends from the beginning. He was the first person to show me what unconditional love looks like.”

Tony Pottorff told his class about his situation in the first few days of the school year.

“I told them, ‘Hopefully, you’ll never have first-hand experience with this, but you will be touched by it,’” he said. “I told them that even though they’re at a busy point in their lives, they shouldn’t overwhelm themselves and not appreciate momentary blessings. We all should make each day a quality day.”

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Who: Tony Pottorff

What: Social studies teacher, Columbus East High School

Age: 45

Resides: Columbus

Type of Cancer: Breast

Treatments: Heavy dose estrogen, immunotherapy

Family members: Wife, Margie; daughters, Amanda and Delaney

Words of encouragement for others battling cancer: “Life doesn’t end with the diagnosis. Be your own best advocate. Don’t let opportunities slip by you. Rely on those around you. People love you more than you think.”