Kris Diasio holds up a Ziploc bag containing a grapefruit, four tangerines and three lemons. The fruit, she tells an Ashland High School health class of juniors and seniors, represents the tumors in her uterus when she was diagnosed with hormonal breast cancer more than a year ago.
That's not to describe to them the horrors of cancer, but instead to provide an accurate depiction of what a woman may experience when battling breast cancer — and to let them know the disease is often curable.
"It's not the death sentence that kids tend to think," Diasio says. "There are other people that have gone through this, and they're doing fine."
Diasio and her daughter, Tracy Chargualaf, have spoken often to classes at AHS this school year, hoping their talks will help diminish the stigma associated with breast cancer and offer guidance for students who in their lifetime likely will have a family member, wife, or partner diagnosed with breast cancer — if they haven't already.
Diasio, 52, and Tracy, an AHS freshman, have given eight presentations and are hoping to branch out to other schools in the Rogue Valley.
Before each class, Diasio asks for a show of hands of those with a mother, grandmother or aunt who has had breast cancer. She says the average is seven.
"So it's huge," Diasio says. "I tell my classes, 'In your lifetime you will know many people with cancer, if not yourself.'"
The pair also want to inform teens how best to deal with those who have been diagnosed.
Henry DeFrisco, an AHS junior, says the presentation stressed compassion. He says many women who are struggling with breast cancer may have to deal with physical changes that could cause a loss of confidence.
He says he'd treat a woman diagnosed with cancer with sympathy, but also try to keep a normal daily routine.
"I think I'll be more prepared if a loved one gets cancer," DeFrisco says.
A change in physical appearance is something to be mindful of, Diasio says, noting a woman's breasts are a part of who she is.
"When we have to lose one of them, or both of them, it is devastating," she says.
The presentation also prepares teenagers to hear the bad news of a loved one's diagnosis. She attempted to hide the news from her daughter. A mistake, she now says.
"I didn't tell her right away because I wanted to protect her," Diasio says.
Diasio was diagnosed in early February 2012. The tumors in her uterus acted like a factory that fed the cancer, she says. Her first operation was a hysterectomy, which removed the uterus and the tumors in it.
A month later, she had her second surgery, a lumpectomy in which surgeons removed a 1.7-centimeter diameter lump in her breast.
And a month after that, at the end of April, she had a third surgery in which the remaining pieces, or borders, of the cancer were removed. She started radiation treatment after that.
Diasio did not reveal to her daughter that she had cancer until before the third surgery.
"You kind of protected me to a fault," says Tracy. She says all of her mother's friends and family knew. "I was the last one."
Tracy says she became depressed but was able to slowly pull herself out.
"It's going to be hard when something horrible happens," Tracy says. "Sometimes you have to go into that black hole."
Diasio says a family member must be compassionate to the person with cancer, but also to himself or herself and guard against depression.
AHS junior Kali Sullivan says she has a friend with cancer and the presentation reinforced her feelings toward him. She says she talks to him as she always has. "Just treat him like a normal person" and offer "constant support," she says.
Junior Katie Shammel, whose grandmother beat breast cancer and has now been diagnosed with a different cancer, agrees that supplying constant love and support is the most important act.
"They need it more than you'll ever know," she says.
Vince Tweddell is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.