Witkamp stands outside the new Ocean Studies Charter School in Key Largo. She’s teaching second- and third-grade students in the jellyfish classroom. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

It’s April 1, 2019. Sabrah Witkamp visits the doctor’s office to obtain biopsy results on a lump she knew she had for some time. 

An avid runner and an Ocean Studies Charter School teacher, Witkamp initially thought it was benign. With a little surgery, she would continue on with her life. 

Witkamp said she wasn’t ready to hear the following words. 

“They said ‘you have carcinoma stage two or three and when can you start chemo.’ It took the wind out of my sails,” she said. “I was never sick. I just had a lump. I didn’t have night sweats, rash, fever or irregular mammograms.” 

A native of Springfield, Illinois, Witkamp has been in Florida for many years upon migrating south to Jacksonville and St. Augustine some 20 years ago. She’s lived in Key Largo with her family for the past four years. 

Witkamp notes that she didn’t see the ocean until eighth grade, and believed that she was born in the wrong place with a newfound love for the water. During her time in St. Augustine, she helped jumpstart an all-girl amateur surf contest. Known as Sisters of the Sea, it’s the largest amateur surf competition for females on the east coast. 

“Ironically, we’d raffle stuff off and we decided in the first year to give the money back to Susan G. Komen Foundation,” she said. “What we learned as a tiny organization was that a few hundred dollars didn’t seem to be appreciated. We committed funds to the Women’s Center of Jacksonville, which does education and assists people locally.”

More than $350,000 has been given to the center to support the local fight against breast cancer. Witkamp said she left the board in September 2018. Months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Witkamp said she was on autopilot with medical appointments lining up.

“There was a lot of information in the first nine weeks,” she said. “On top of that, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago. She went through a bilateral mastectomy. She didn’t do the modern therapy, but instead took it holistically. She ended up having metastatic breast cancer, so that coupled with those words about my diagnosis had me overwhelmed.”

Going through treatments and surgeries, Witkamp said it was her “tribe” of co-workers at Ocean Studies Charter School that helped her through her battle. 

“They said, ‘We’ve got this. You go figure out what’s happening with you.’ There was no doubt in my mind they meant what they said. And really for a long time, only a few people even knew because I was unsure what my situation was,” she said. “I didn’t know if it was going to be worse after all these scans and results, or less where it’s a little lumpectomy.”

Once she started to tell people of her situation, others started to offer her support in the way of prayers and cards. Her surf family reached out to send good thoughts. Her local doctor’s office also checked on her periodically. 

Her first day of chemotherapy was on May 30, 2019 — the day before school was let out. Treatment at the Miami Cancer Institute went throughout the summer until Sept, 7, 2019. She had surgery on Oct. 1, 2019 to remove lymph nodes and breast tissue. Her last radiation treatment was Jan. 24, 2020. 

“It was really the plastic surgeon who came in from the surgery and said ‘you’re going home cancer free.’ I don’t know that he knew that for a fact, but I accepted that and everything else fell in line,” she said. “Some day down the road, I won’t wake up thinking about stuff. I’m sure that happens eventually, you go back to whatever your normal is.”

With breast cancer beat, Witkamp was preparing to participate in a marathon for her 50th birthday. It was set to take place in Greece, before the coronavirus pandemic led to its cancellation. She continues to train, however, as she plans for a 26-mile trek from her home to Bud N’ Marys. 

“I’m going to see if anyone wants to meet me on the road and just do it on the down-low,” she said. 

Her message to others going through a breast cancer battle? Lean into the education of it all. 

“Making decisions and behaving on fear is probably not the best thing to do, but to really lean into it if you have questions about stuff like treatment. I didn’t have to do all that stuff. They just said this is best practice and this is what we recommend you doing. I could have decided to not. Really, don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Witkamp is teaching second- and third-grade students inside the jellyfish classroom at Ocean Studies Charter School’s new facility in Key Largo. 

“For the most part I think we’re in a good place. I think everybody’s ready to be back safely and have some sense of normalcy, camaraderie and collaboration.”

Sabrah Witkamp with her Ocean Studies Charter School students last year. CONTRIBUTED
Students group in with Witkamp for a photo last year. CONTRIBUTED

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