Toftwood headteacher talks about second cancer fight

A headteacher has spoken of her sadness at having to retire from the school and career she loved after being diagnosed with cancer for the second time.

Alex Gelling, who joined Toftwood Junior School, near Dereham, in 2005, went to see her doctor last year after feeling increasingly tired.

She said: 'I blamed it on too much work and pressure – but I didn't recover in the summer holidays.'

Following a series of tests, the 56-year-old was told she had secondary breast cancer which had spread to her bones and other parts of her body. It was the second time Miss Gelling had been struck by the disease after also having surgery for breast cancer three years ago.

Since having the latest diagnosis confirmed in October, she has undergone another operation.

She said: 'They have built this amazing structure in my back – I think of it as being a bit like a Meccano structure. It has enabled me to walk.

'The hospital have been absolutely wonderful. I got the results of the CT scan and was in hospital that evening – that was the Tuesday. They operated the Friday. If they hadn't, I would have been paralysed by Monday.'

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Chemotherapy is being used to slow the spread of the cancer and Miss Gelling said doctors were 'optimistic' it was having an effect.

The headteacher, who has lived in Norfolk for 21 years, very quickly realised she would not be able to return to work and, within a week of being diagnosed, told staff and governors.

They then had the difficult task of telling pupils and parents.

'It's a really hard decision, deciding how much you tell people. I decided to tell everyone everything. Then it was all out in the open. The school needed to be settled,' Miss Gelling said.

She has been inundated with cards, letters and visits from colleagues and parents, and has enjoyed the occasional phone call from the school asking for advice.

But as Toftwood Junior advertises for a new headteacher, Miss Gelling said she was looking forward to 'enjoying some retirement', which she hoped would include a trip to New Zealand.

The former Necton Middle School headteacher, who spent a year working in Australia, said: 'It's strange not to be at work. I miss it and I miss the children.

'I felt, because my career ended so abruptly, I didn't have time to finish properly. But we had achieved so much.'

In her last Ofsted report, published March 2010, inspectors praised the 'happy school' whose pupils were 'truly proud to shine'. It added: 'The school is so good because of the dedicated leadership of the headteacher and the enthusiasm of the staff team.'

Miss Gelling said she was proud of her team and the way it had dealt with a constantly changing education system. The school had developed the Toftwood Learning Adventure which ensures the curriculum is taught in a way which made it exciting and relevant to pupils.

She said she was also content with her achievements outside of school which have included travelling the world and trekking above the Everest base camp to celebrate her 50th birthday.

She said: 'I want more life but, if it stopped now, that would be ok because I have made the most of what I have had.

'I always hoped to make a real difference to whoever and wherever I was.'

victoria.leggett@archant.co.uk