Three weeks ago, Jennifer Pust said, she was a normal person. And she still is. She’s a 38-year-old English teacher at Santa Monica High, she’s married with two kids and she enjoys reading, cupcakes and the Dodgers.
Only now she has breast cancer, a diagnosis she is facing with a combination of courage, hope and steady support from the campus community.
“When I told my colleagues, they said, ‘Are you sure you want to be upfront? It’s OK to keep that private,'” Pust said. “I think I want to show my students that there are different ways we can handle crises. Life is going to throw difficult stuff at us. If you’re part of a community and invest in it, others will rally around you. So, as painful as these three weeks have been, they’ve also been beautiful.”
Beauty is what Pust saw when students who know her for her “weird shoes” recently gave her white sneakers that had been signed by members of the Samohi community.
Beauty is what she saw when football coach Ramsey Lambert asked her to be an honorary captain at the Vikings’ home game Oct. 16, which capped Think Pink Week at the school as students participated in national Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
And beauty is what she saw when a student set up a GoFundMe crowd-funding page that pooled more than $15,000 from 240 donors in just eight days.
Pust, who plans to continue teaching until expected surgery early next year, said she’s been humbled and surprised by the outpouring of support.
“I’m so incredibly grateful,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but it really has a beautiful side to it. I’m just trying to stay as optimistic as I can.
“People are really, really, really, really great. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through an illness like this alone. We hear so many things that are wrong with our young people, our schools, our communities. But it’s incredible what can happen when people decide to join together.”
The online campaign has drawn donations from students, parents and teachers, as well as friends and family. Many of the donors, including several Samohi alumni, added messages of encouragement.
“you’re the reason I’m even at ucla right now,” wrote Eric Stocker, a recent graduate who is studying electrical engineering. “I hope you have a swift recovery.”
Added alumna Claudia Marin: “i would not be at Berkeley if not for your hard work and dedication.”
Another former Samohi student, Danielle Shapiro, wrote, “Mrs. Pust has been such an inspiration to me and I know I would not be where I am today without her kindness and help.”
Pust said she has health insurance but added that the donated money will help her and her family pay for the myriad out-of-pocket costs associated with her diagnosis. In addition to financial assistance, she said, people have offered meals, rides, childcare and more.
“It’s amazing how big and small the world is all at the same time,” she said. “It’s really meant a lot to me and my family. The fact that this community would encircle me, it’s everything.”
Pust, whose parents attended Venice High, grew up in Beaumont west of Palm Springs. She met her now-husband, Michael, as a student at UC Riverside, and they took jobs in San Diego before moving to LA about 10 years ago.
That’s when Pust started working as a teacher at Samohi, where she became the English department chair about seven years ago. She has a son in 2nd grade at Grant Elementary School and a 3-year-old son in preschool.
“This is my home,” she said. “This school district has meant so much to me.”
Pust said she knew something “wasn’t quite right” when she went to her doctor for an annual exam Oct. 1. She underwent a battery of tests the following day and was soon diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, a rarer and more aggressive form of the disease that accounts for less than 5 percent of all diagnoses in the U.S., according to the National Cancer Institute.
Pust, whose aunt and grandmother both had breast cancer, had a scare about 10 years ago. But she said it wasn’t taken as seriously at the time because she was in her 20s and because the diagnoses in her family were on her father’s side.
“I wasn’t even having annual mammograms,” she said.
Doctors have told Pust her cancer is serious but treatable. She recently began a 6-month cycle of chemotherapy and expects to have surgery in February, after which she’ll likely undergo extensive radiation treatment.
In the days after being diagnosed, Pust began telling her close friends and family. On Oct. 9 she told her students, a few of whom asked for permission to start a crowd-funding campaign to help her. Briana Gomez had it up and running a few days later.
Pust said she saw the GoFundMe link on her Facebook feed before having the chance to inform all of her friends and family. The timing, she said, encouraged her to be open about her diagnosis.
“My goal in this is to be as public as possible with everything that’s going on,” she said. “The only thing that’s going to help me through this is the love of the community around me.”