As Howard Ellis Elementary principal battles cancer, community rallies

Published 9:41 am Monday, March 4, 2019

NILES —  When Michelle Asmus found out she was diagnosed with breast cancer in October last year, she quickly discovered it was a fight she would not face alone.

After her first chemotherapy treatment, she returned to her job as principal at Howard Ellis and found the entire staff wearing bright pink shirts that read Viking Strong #Support Squad.   

“It made me feel not as alone and that it was not just me fighting,” Asmus said. “I had this army behind me. It also gave me much hope.”

True to her profession in the education field, Asmus is using her battle with cancer to convey important lessons. Number one is getting regular screenings for cancer. The other is the power of community support.

When Asmus first found out she had cancer, she said the toughest part of the diagnosis was breaking the news to people she loves.

“One of the hardest things I had to do besides telling my two boys was telling my staff,” Asmus said. “Many of them I had known for a very long time. They are part of my extended family. I decided to write an email to them. It was one of the hardest emails I ever had to write.” 

In response, her staff and greater Niles community were quick to show their support.

Asmus has completed five out of eight weeks of chemotherapy. Every other Thursday, when Asmus receives treatment, the Howard Ellis staff dress in pink to remind her that they are there for her. Even during holiday breaks, staff members wore pink shirts, Asmus said. She knows because they would email her pictures of their outfits, reminding her that she was still in their thoughts.

The pink shirts, however, were just one sign of the support that the Howard-Ellis and greater Niles community have shown since she was diagnosed. 

“They arranged for meals and picking up my kids,” Asmus said. “They would do anything. I’m just so grateful to work with a bunch of people like this. They would do this for anyone. It’s just who they are.”

Despite her battle with cancer, Asmus has remained at her job and said she is happy to have the opportunity to do so. Her students have also helped her to be strong. They have crafted cards, pink ribbons and even a pair of earrings for her.

“It’s just unbelievable the amount of support,” Asmus said. “The kids brighten my day every day.”

Other students whose own family members have battled cancer have opened up and talked with her, creating a dialogue about how the disease touches the lives of many.

Asmus said she wants to use her battle to advocate for people to get regular cancer screenings.

Asmus said her mom is a breast cancer survivor. Because of this, she said it motivated Asmus to get regular mammograms, which helped her catch the cancer at an early stage. 

“Anything you are thinking is a concern or if you have a family history, get it checked out soon rather than later,” Asmus said.

Her message has influenced at least 10 teachers and parents that she knows to get a cancer screening. 

Asmus has worked for the Niles Community School District since 2000. From 2004 to 2009, she served as the assistant principal of Howard Ellis, before becoming the principal. Last year, she was honored by the Niles Education Foundation for making a difference in the education community.

Now her community is getting the chance to make a difference in her life, too. With so many people rallying behind her, Asmus said she is left feeling Viking Strong.

“It’s so comforting to know how many people have me in their thoughts and prayers,” Asmus said.