Steel Valley educator honored for commitment to students during cancer battle

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It was the kind of news that stops a person in her tracks.

Two years ago, Maria Heddleston, a mother of two young sons, learned that she had stage IV metastatic breast cancer.

Mrs. Heddleston, a reading specialist in the Steel Valley School District, kept on going.

She took sick days for chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and other treatments, but for the most part she has continued her life as normal, working at Park Elementary School in Munhall and organizing special programs for her students and their parents to promote literacy.

"She really wants to be as normal as possible," said Michelle Blasko, a Park Elementary special education teacher. "She always says that she has cancer -- cancer doesn't have her."

That commitment -- to her family, students, school district and community -- was noticed.

Mrs. Heddleston, 37, of Munhall, was recently named a Pink Power Mom, one of eight women recognized nationally by a foundation run by the Atlanta-based Kids II toy company. The annual award program, now in its sixth year, recognizes women who inspire others in their fight against breast cancer.

Her husband, Brian Heddleston, nominated his wife after he discovered the program online last year. When he mentioned the contest to her friends and colleagues, they sent in their own nominations, too, all without Mrs. Heddleston's knowledge.

The decision she made, to make her fight with breast cancer public and continue to lead her life, sends out a positive message, Mr. Heddleston said, that "life throws curveballs and sometimes you just have to sit up and take it and continue to do what you do best."

Among the other submissions, Mrs. Heddleston's story stood out, said a Kids II spokeswoman. So did the fact that of the nearly 400 nominations sent in, more than 20 were for Mrs. Heddleston, the most for any candidate. The nominations came from her former students, her friends and members of "Team Maria," an informal group with a Facebook page to support Mrs. Heddleston and get updates on her condition.

"She is a real motivation to many people that you just keep going," said Diana Borges, director of pupil personnel, special services and elementary education at Steel Valley.

Next month, Mrs. Heddleston, along with the seven other Pink Power Moms, will be flown to Atlanta for a weekend that will include pampering and celebrating.

She will receive $5,000, and then $1,000 a year for the next four years, for a charity of her choice. She has chosen to donate her award to Gilda's Club Western Pennsylvania in the Strip District, a support center for people with cancer and the place where Mrs. Heddleston turned for support when she first received her diagnosis.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Heddleston continues to schedule her frequent doctor's appointments during her planning periods so they do not disrupt classroom time. Cancer has spread to her liver and her brain, among other spots. "Basically, it's head to toe," she said.

"Even though it is bad and on paper it looks bad, I've always believed in mind over matter," she said.

Her commitment is to keep life normal for her 7-year-old son, John, a first-grader at Park, and her 3-year-old son, Nathan.

"You have to show them that you are fine," she said. "So for me, fine means 'Mommy gets up and Mommy goes to work.' "

education - neigh_south - health

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707. First Published January 21, 2013 5:00 AM


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