Jones celebrates normalcy with cancer in remission

Orchestra teacher Stephanie Jones conducts her orchestra class.

Laurel Wang | The Chronicle

In October 2021, Mason High School (MHS) Orchestra Director Stephanie Jones was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), a form of breast cancer. 

Jones began a complex treatment plan to combat her cancer starting from the fall of 2021 through November 2022. Comprised of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation, treatment often left her with the side effects of extreme fatigue, nausea, and disorientation. After each round of chemotherapy, she would be out of school for a few days to recover.

“My oncologist actually told me that they didn’t think that I would be able to teach during that time period and recommended that I take a break or a leave,” Jones said. “I was pretty upset about that. I wanted to keep that sense of normalcy and be able to make connections with students instead of just sitting at home by myself going through that.”

Despite the side effects, Jones continued to visit her classes when she could. She said being able to see her students and play with the orchestra was a break from the emotionally taxing experience of treatment.

“For me, music is a release,” Jones said. “It is something I enjoy with a passion. And teaching music is work, but the music is also a release. So coming in and being able to allow myself to just concentrate on teaching rather than what I was going through was so good for me.”

Due to the community aspect of an orchestra, Jones prioritized providing her orchestra classes with information about her diagnosis. She told her orchestra classes shortly after she received the news, and after she and her doctors had outlined a plan of treatment. 

“There’s a lot of teamwork and mutual respect that needs to happen between the ensemble musicians and the conductor,” Jones said. “And in order to be able to form those bonds and work together, I just felt it was really important to tell them. I would rather them hear from me than to guess what was happening.”

Senior Anuj Mantha has been playing violin for the Mason Orchestras for six years. Jones has been one of his orchestra directors since his Freshman year and said she has always been an open, trusted teacher that cares deeply about her students. When Jones first told the orchestra about her diagnosis, his initial reaction was disbelief.

“We were all just shocked,” Mantha said. “It didn’t really make sense. A lot of people you see in TV shows and movies get a diagnosis and it’s life-altering and it doesn’t feel like it would happen in real life. It’s not supposed to happen to people like this; people who are always good to us.”

Jones worked to balance honesty with positivity while sharing about her cancer. While providing students with information about the changes she and the orchestra would experience over the course of her treatment, she mostly allowed them to reach out to her. Despite wanting to be open and truthful, she also said she did not want to burden her students with worry.

“Sometimes I’d say things like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just kind of in a fog’, but I wouldn’t be real specific about exactly what I was feeling,” Jones said. “As teachers and adults and parents, there’s this balance of being honest but also not wanting to burden or make somebody worry. I had worry, but I didn’t want them to be worried about it.”

Despite the difficulties she experienced physically and mentally during her treatment, Mantha said Jones stayed positive and available for her students throughout the year. 

“Her attitude never changed,” Mantha said. “Even with the cancer diagnosis, she was still that open person that was available to everyone.”

While Jones was out, the orchestra regularly brought in different instrumentalists instead of a long-term substitute. Students were able to receive specialized instruction for their instruments in sectionals. Still, Mantha said that the orchestra felt the loss of Jones’ presence and leadership.

“She’s very intelligent musically and to lose someone that intelligent was very hard on us and the way we approached music,” Mantha said. “We needed an elevated level of sectional coaches and people who were versed in music so they could ‘fill her spot’, but there was still a feeling that there was something missing.”

Jones went back to a more full-time role in the 2022-2023 school year as her treatment tapered and she felt well enough to teach. She said she looked forward to returning to a state of normalcy, using the new school year as a signifier for the next stage after cancer.

“I kind of went in this school year gung-ho, just not even thinking about the fact that I was still in treatment,” Jones said. “And then within a few weeks I was like, ‘Oh, wait, this is still affecting my life’. I still had a lot of appointments, I still had treatments, and I’m still actually feeling some fatigue. But it has felt like I could kind of mentally be like, ‘Okay move on, move on.’”

Mantha said that Jones’ return has been welcomed by her students, who appreciate her presence and leadership greatly. 

“We’re all just happy that she’s back. It feels normal. I went from feeling like there was a little emptiness and there was something missing to, ‘Okay, this is how it should be. This is how it has been.’ 

Jones’ treatment concluded in November 2022 as she entered remission. She currently shows no signs of disease. Now, several months out of treatment, Jones is looking toward the future. 

“I’m actually super excited about the Chicago trip,” said Jones. “I didn’t really realize when we got this opportunity, but our concert is literally when I ended chemotherapy last year. So it’s kind of a celebration of ‘Let’s leave that stuff in the dust behind us and move on’.”

Photo by Laurel Wang