TOLEDO — On Tuesday morning, Sharon Bower was wearing her "Power Hair."
That's what she jokingly calls the neat blonde bob wig she favors for business meetings.
The upbeat, confident Toledo school superintendent gives the impression she can handle anything. In fact, her "Power Hair" is the only clue that her last few months have been anything but easy.
In January, Bower, 53, was diagnosed with two types of breast cancer. Nevertheless, even during the most grueling parts of her intense treatment regimen, Bower has continued to work, steering the district through budget planning, hiring of a new principal and the negotiations to release former Toledo Elementary School Principal Ron Reynolds from his contested contract.
During her eight years as the superintendent of Toledo schools, the challenges of running a school system have kept the married mother of two passionately and constantly engaged in her work, Bower said. Her diagnosis, though, forced her to reconsider her approach to work and life.
Her habit of getting regular mammograms saved her life in January, when a routine examination led to the early discovery of a very aggressive tumor. Initially, doctors found only one relatively minor, and easily treatable lump.
"They told me it was DCIS, which is a 'baby cancer'," Bower said during an interview at her office Tuesday. But surgery to remove it in March led to the discovery of another, much more dangerous growth, known as a Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.
"The big kick came a few days (after the surgery), when the path(ology) report came back, because hiding within the baby cancer was a very aggressive cancer," Bower said.
A day-long consultation at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance brought more shocking news — because her cancer was advancing very rapidly, she would need intensive treatment.
"I went up there thinking, hmm, they're probably going to want to do some radiation," Bower recalled.
Instead, doctors recommended 20 weeks of chemo, another surgery, and five straight weeks of regular radiation.
"I never thought I'd have to do all three," Bower said.
Bower immediately asked the school board if she should take time off during her treatment.
"Their first concern was Sharon the person and my health, but they were hoping that I could still do the major stuff," Bower explained.
Bower resolved not to let cancer get the best of her, or stop her from doing her job.
"I never thought I couldn't do it for a minute," Bower said. "The only thing I had control over in this whole situation was how I was going to handle it. I made a very conscious decision that I would stay positive."
The first few weeks in late spring, when Bower started debilitating bi-weekly chemo treatments, were the hardest. For the first time in her life, Bower began to delegate work to the school board and district staff.
"There is no way I could have done it without their support. They were amazing, They continue to be amazing," Bower said. "People here stepped up and said, 'I'll do what I need to do to help.' Nobody said, 'I have too much work to do.' "
Bower often worked from home, attending meetings through Skype, and completing paperwork between naps and treatments.
To protect her compromised immune system, she stayed away from the school buildings completely until she finished her chemo at around Labor Day.
"I could not have worked if I were a teacher or a principal," Bower said.
"I wouldn't say nothing fell off the plate because I don't think that's possible, but we kept the big stuff going."
Bower powered through with her usual determination: After a second surgery last month, she took only two days off before returning to work.
Bower is regaining her strength, saying 'I feel more like myself every day."
Although a recent biopsy found no traces of cancer, she isn't home free. She will need to complete the radiation to ensure that every last cancer cell is killed. Those treatments will start in a week or so.
Going through treatment has changed the way she thinks about work and life in several key ways, she said.
First, she is working harder than ever to convince other women that regular mammograms are a must.
"Every doctor has looked at me and said, 'That mammogram has saved your life.' I get in people's business about mammograms. I care. It's crucial," Bower said.
And secondly, she said, after 30 years of working tirelessly, her illness has inspired her to spend more time focusing on faith, health, and family.
"It's really easy to let big careers take over, and I had let that happen," Bower said, "Its OK to say no. It's OK to ask for help. ... I gave myself permission to have a life."