South teacher battles cancer

English teacher Ria VanRyn is missed in the halls of South High


Courtesy of VanRyn

English teacher Ria VanRyn and her daughter, Schuyler.

As you walk through the halls of the South High English Department, you may notice that an important person has been missing this school year–Ria VanRyn.

The normally cheerful, intelligent, and hard-working teacher who never backs down from a challenge is now fighting one of the biggest challenges of her life–cancer.

VanRyn has a rare type of cancer called GI/Neuroendocrine Carcinoma. Neuroendocrine attacks the cells of the nerves and hormonal system and VanRyn’s cancer began in the gastrointestinal system.

Though extremely unexpected, VanRyn said her cancer diagnosis was an evolving process.

“I went to the eye doctor at the end of July because my left eyelid had been drooping. I was diagnosed with Horner’s Syndrome, which is when something is pressing on the nerve that controls the eyelid. That syndrome is actually a symptom of bigger problems, so I had a lot of different scans and tests and went through a few diagnoses at first that turned out to be incorrect,” she said. “I first knew I had cancer on 24 July, but it was the beginning of August before we knew it was GI/Neuroendocrine.”

Because her diagnosis was happening right as summer break was ending and school was beginning, VanRyn said she felt a little worried about how South High teachers and students would react.

“There was so much unknown,” she said. “I had no idea if and when I’d be able to work and how coming and going would affect my students. My work is a huge part of who I am and what I love, and it’s been very hard for me to be away from school.”

However, she said her South friends have been extremely supportive and helpful.

“My South High friends make sure that I am up to date on everything that’s happening at school so I feel more in the loop and they also reinforce to me that my health is the most important thing and that I don’t need to be concerned about school until I’m doing much better,” she said.

One of VanRyn’s friends, English teacher Whitney Wilhelm, has been supportive of VanRyn since she first learned of her diagnosis

“[When I heard about her diagnosis] I was scared for her and sad, but I knew she was a fighter and I had some hope in that,” she said. “She is extremely intelligent. She thinks and works at a higher level than most people I know and she’s extremely organized and empathetic. She’s the best! She is always there to listen and she’ll tell you if you’re being ridiculous, but also support you if you are floundering. She always tries to remind you of why you are a good teacher and a good friend.”

Without VanRyn in her classroom, Wilhelm said she believes the teaching dynamic at South just isn’t the same, especially in the English department.

“It is very different. I do get more stuff done though because I don’t just hang out in her room and talk to her all the time!” she said. “But there is a hole without her. Her work and opinion is valued so much.”

VanRyn’s support system at South is not only limited to teachers and administration, but students as well.

Trish Nguyen, senior, had VanRyn as a junior for her English 3 class.

“When I first heard about the diagnosis, I was really shocked because she always seems so well put together,” she said. “She gave me more confidence and always showed me support with nods and smiles. In my opinion, she is one of the best teachers and without her, students can’t reach their full potential.”

Along with Nguyen, senior Megan Ganninger has fond memories of her time as a student of VanRyn.

“I kind of didn’t believe she had cancer at first. It was just a little rumor floating around at school. I knew she was having health problems, but I was still so surprised,” she said. “I had her both freshman and junior year and by junior year, she always knew when I wasn’t writing to my full potential and she would push me to be better. Throughout the year, she was always really interested in what students were reading and writing and she helped her students feel passionate. She is someone who truly cares about what she is doing. She knows her believes, she stays true to them, and she helps other people discover theirs.”

Currently, VanRyn is undergoing intense treatment to help her fight her cancer.

My first type of chemo worked on some of my tumors but not others, so I switched to a different kind. I also just finished a round of radiation,” she said. “In a couple of weeks, we should know more about what’s working and what isn’t. In terms of how it’s been, I am so grateful for all the newer drugs that make tolerating chemo and radiation much easier than it was in the past. However, there have been a few snags, mostly as my body grows more and more tired. I’ve heard and think it’s true for me so far that treatment is as hard on your body as the actual cancer.”

Though experiencing great exhaustion, VanRyn said her love for the subject of English has transferred over to her treatment.

“It probably won’t surprise people who know me to say I find a lot of comfort through reading,” she said. “I’ve had to stop reading a few things because they got too close to home and I am really working on staying in the moment and not making forecasts about the future. For the most part, I’ve been able to lose myself in books that are either an escape or help me to make some sense of what’s happening to me and what I can do about it.”

Because cancer treatment can be aggressive, tiring, and painstaking, VanRyn said she has had support to get through the difficult days in family and friends from all over the country.

“My family and friends have been incredible. My parents and sisters live in St. Louis and have literally re-arranged their lives to make sure Schuyler [my one year old daughter] and I are taken care of,” she said. “Because I spent my first 15 years out of high school living in different places, I’m lucky enough to have friends and family around the country who come visit and cook, watch trashy TV, and bring me snacks during chemo. I also get so much comfort in talking with friends and family who know how to make me feel like ‘me’ again. One of the hardest parts of having cancer is that it quickly consumes your identity. I find it comfortable to do “normal” things whenever I am physically able.”

Fighting cancer is not an easy challenge and requires immense strength. Luckily, VanRyn said she has been able to source her strength through two important things in her life: her daughter and her religion.

“Schuyler is my biggest source of strength,” she said. “I worked really hard to bring her into my family and watching her grow is my greatest joy. When I get overwhelmed and frustrated, I try to hold her or play with her or look at pictures to remind me of the most important reason to persevere. I also find strength in my religious community. I am Jewish and had just joined a Synagogue not long before my diagnosis, and I have been so grateful for a physical and emotional space where I feel unconditional love. I practice mindfulness and find my time at services [even if I’m streaming them from home!] is a good time for me to clear my head and be present in the moment.”

Since her diagnosis has gone public at South High, VanRyn said she has felt the Parkway South spirit during her treatment.

“When I first had to share the news, I started getting emails, notes, texts, and treats from South High friends, letting me know I was missed and that people were thinking of me. One group of colleagues got together and made sure my grass was mowed every week. Another group set up a card-writing campaign and I got dozens of thoughtful notes and a #psouthproud shirt. I have also loved getting emails and notes from former students, whom I miss so much! Cancer can be very isolating, so feeling a part of South High even though I’m not there has meant so much to me,” VanRyn said.

Despite the harrowing situation she is experiencing, VanRyn said she is eager to come back to teaching at South High.

“I would love to be back ASAP, but it all depends on how treatment goes,” she said.  “Every time I’ve tried to make a forecast about coming back, I’ve been wrong, so I am trying to just take it day by day for now.”

As the school year marches on and the English department continues to miss their completing puzzle piece, South High students like Nguyen and Ganninger and teachers like Wilhelm will continue to show VanRyn support.

“If I saw her today, I would tell her that I miss her,” Nguyen said. “Things may be hard right now, but I know and South knows that she is strong and will no doubt give her best shot at fighting through.”