Replace the bandanna with a full head of hair, and it would be hard to tell there was anything wrong with Deb McAfee.

McAfee, in her 12th year as principal at Windham High School, has all the energy and sunny outlook expected by her students and staff. She moves through the office with purpose, checking on projects and cracking jokes. Saying goodbye to kids as they leave for the day. Raving about a teacher being honored that night.

There is no sign of sickness, no hint of the brain tumor doctors discovered last January. The one that was supposed to be gone nine years ago. The one that will absolutely not keep her from going to graduation, set for Sunday, June 7, at 1:30 p.m. at the Cumberland County Civic Center.

These are students she has watched closely for more than a decade. The daughter of one of her best childhood friends is in the class, so she has followed the students closely. She saw them enter school, play in Little League, and grow into young adults. Nothing, she said, not even pending brain surgery, will stop her from seeing them through this milestone.

“That’s what I told them back in January. I am going to go to graduation,” said McAfee. “It’s a class I have a lot more connections to than others. This is a really cool class.”

Having her there as they receive their diplomas will mean a lot to the students, said senior Anna Vermette, whose mother, Mary Jane, grew up with McAfee. It’s impossible, though, to look at the principal and not think about what may be going on behind the upbeat veneer.

“I was worried. I am worried,” said Vermette, taking a break from marching practice Wednesday at the High School. “Maybe it’s selfish, but I’m glad she is going to be there.

“Obviously, she’s important to me, and she’s important to our class,” she said.

It wasn’t always certain the McAfee would be there on graduation day. In January, she learned she would have to once again deal with a brain tumor. Nine years ago, extensive treatment, including chemotherapy and drugs, helped her beat an egg-sized tumor, and once a year since then, McAfee would get an MRI telling her she was cancer free.

The annual tests go on for 10 years before a patient is labeled free and clear. It was the ninth test that came up wrong for McAfee, who had felt no ill effects, none of the numbness in her leg that signaled trouble the first time around. The tests, she said, had become a mere formality, the trip to the doctor’s, like a trip to the store.

It was the same for many of the staff members in the Windham School Department, many of whom had watched McAfee fight her first battle with cancer.

“When you hear nine years, you get that feeling of being safe,” said Kelli Deveaux, who is acting principal while McAfee attends to her treatment.

When it came time to break the news to the staff, Deveaux said, McAfee worried about bringing up bad memories for those who had seen their lives upended by cancer before.

“Deb was very concerned of its impact on others. She has been just gracious the whole time,” Deveaux said.

Students, too, wanted to do something. McAfee gets to know the students, and students know they can approach her. A garden once planned for the entrance to the high school had been put off during construction, something McAfee always regretted. In her honor, the senior class donated $1,000 for the garden.

“I said I would love to have that garden put in front, because that’s where my office looks out to,” said McAfee, walking around the newly planted spot.

The cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare type to be found in the brain, was in a different spot this time, the ventricles, where spinal fluid is made, McAfee said. Treatment, which started immediately, kept her in a hospital for a week at a time, every other week, until she is ready for the stem cell transplant that will, it is hoped, prevent another recurrence.

Treatments have been ongoing “week in, week out, week in, since the first week of January,” said McAfee.

If McAfee’s energy and spirit have been hampered by the disease and exhausting treatment, it hasn’t shown, said Vermette. “You can never really tell how much pain she is in. She is really tough. I’m sure she is going to pull through.”

On her weeks without treatment, McAfee would come in to the High School and check on projects, and be there to dispense advice if needed, though she has left the day-to-day operation of the school up to Deveaux.

“I tell people I’m just the temp,” she said. “I can’t imagine not working. I’m not the type of person to sit around, and daytime TV is horrible.”

Starting June 15, she will undergo intense, high-dose chemotherapy designed to kill any cancerous cells and defeat her immune system in advance of the transplant of stem cells, which will be taken from her prior to the chemotherapy. The treatment will take place first at Maine Medical Center in Portland, then at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where her brother is the clinical director for bone marrow transplants. His supervisor will be overseeing the operation, McAfee said.

“I tease him that my other brother is an attorney, just in case,” she said.

After three weeks or so, she’ll be home in Windham, where she’ll have to stay for around 100 days to avoid infection.

“Then, home in isolation,” she said, looking forward to three months with her dog Cameron, working through a stack of books. Visitors, she said, should be ready to suit up. “Mask, gloves, gown, the whole bit,” she said.

The recovery period means McAfee, for the first time in three decades, will not be around for the hustle and bustle of school’s opening day. She hopes to return as soon as she is cleared, sometime in October maybe. Four months away, she is already missing it.

“What’ll be hard is not coming to soccer games or football games,” said McAfee. “Next year will be my 30th year in education. It’ll be weird not to be here for the start of the year.”

It will be no surprise to the staff when McAfee is once again roaming the hallways and playing fields at Windham High, Deveaux said.

“This is what life has handed her, and she is not going to let it stop her,” she said.

Windham High School Principal Deb McAfee is facing more chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant after learning in January that a brain tumor had returned after nine years of being cancer free.


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