“I’m not going to give up. I’m going to try to live every day to the best that I can.”
W.S. Neal High School Principal Phillip Ellis|Principal vows to fight cancer

Published 1:16 am Saturday, August 29, 2009

By Staff
Story and Photo by Kerry Whipple Bean
Phillip Ellis knew something was wrong. The W.S. Neal High School principal lived most of the spring with a pain in his chest, one he thought at first was a simple pulled muscle. By graduation the pain had spread to his back, and he could feel a knot in his chest.
But as he and his family prepared for one of the greatest honors of Ellis’ career — his selection to the Alabama Future Farmers Association’s Wall of Honor — Ellis told no one, not even his wife, of his fears.
Not long after he returned from the FFA ceremony, Ellis shared his concerns with his family. A doctor soon confirmed his fears with a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
For Ellis, it was a second time in a few days to be faced with his own mortality. At the Wall of Honor ceremony, he was struck by the knowledge that most of the names on the list were of those who were deceased.
That attitude — and the prayers of family, friends, students and colleagues — are key to Ellis’ treatment, he said.
Surrounded by prayers
Ellis began to suspect something was wrong when his back pain simply wouldn’t go away.
But as the pain grew worse, Ellis knew something was wrong. He kept his fears from his family, even his wife, Saundra, principal at Brewton Elementary School.
But when he planned to go to the doctor after returning from the awards ceremony, Ellis confided in his family. His wife has been his greatest cheerleader and support, he said.
He has also drawn strength from the people who have called, written notes or stopped him in the halls at school to wish him well or offer words of encouragement.
Ellis’ church family at First Presbyterian has surrounded him, with pastor John Mathieu offering support as well.
The man who at first didn’t want to share his fears of his disease now welcomes the public attention — and prayers.
The next steps
If Ellis has faith in God, he also has faith in modern medicine. Admittedly a man who rarely went to the doctor, Ellis said he has come to rely on his many physicians — those locally and at UAB.
Ellis’ current chemotherapy treatments are being done in Brewton. He is hoping they will make him strong enough to undergo a unique stem cell treatment, most likely to happen at UAB in Birmingham.  To get to that point, Ellis has to be down to between 5 and 10 percent of cancer cells in his body.
While the odds are difficult with such a rare disease, Ellis has faith in his doctors.
Multiple myeloma has a five-year survival rate of 35 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. Ellis’s diagnosis was made relatively early, although it is difficult to catch the disease.
Looking ahead
Ellis was diagnosed June 16, but he has missed few days of work at W.S. Neal.
He isn’t ready to give up his life’s work — education — when there is so much left to do.
And Ellis has his eye on one particular date in the near future — his daughter Karen’s wedding day in November.
Beyond that, he said he will take things one day at a time. Ellis’ favorite room in his house is the sunroom, where he tries to spend some time every morning.

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