PIEDMONT, S.D. — On a recent morning at Piedmont Valley Elementary School, principal Ethan Dschaak had a visit from a pint-sized kindergartener.
The girl had in tow a box of chocolates and a handmade card. The printing in the card was unmistakably that of a kindergartener, but the sentiment summed up the thoughts of an entire school and community — "Mr. Dschaak, thank you for being a great principal. I am praying for you."
Dschaak announced recently that his cancer, which had been in remission for more than five years, has returned.
At a trip to Mayo Clinic last month, the doctor found a tumor on Dschaak's lung that is believed to be cancerous. He was headed to Mayo Clinic and was scheduled to have surgery to have the tumor removed.
Dschaak shared the news on Facebook saying: "Although I am disappointed in this news, we are not defeated. This is simply a setback that we will get through. In many ways this situation could have been so much worse. There could have been multiple tumors or worse yet, multiple tumors in both lungs. We will get through this and I will be physically in a better place once we do."
Some may wonder how Dschaak can keep such a positive attitude in the face of adversity. The 46-year-old, who grew up in Belle Fourche, said it was always an expectation in his family that you don't feel sorry for yourself.
"My parents instilled in us that you learn to deal with the hand you are dealt," he told the Black Hills Pioneer.
Carol Waider, second-grade teacher, said the staff is often stunned by Dschaak's positive attitude.
"In light of everything, he is oftentimes the one that is comforting us," she said.
Waider said she sends Dschaak positive thoughts, but keeps the messages lighthearted.
"He likes Seinfeld, so sometimes I send him Seinfeld memes or anything that's not super sappy," she said.
Waider was among staff members at the elementary school who have gone through multiple bouts of cancer with Dschaak.
"The first time it happened he had really young kids. I feel like he maintained a positive attitude for them and that has just carried forward," Waider said.
Dschaak was diagnosed in November 2009 with leiomyosarcoma, a form of cancer, which caused a soft tissue tumor in his thigh.
The first symptoms appeared nearly a year before that when Dschaak thought he had bruised his left thigh muscle while running on a treadmill. He thought it was a bruise from a muscle tear and treated it as such. Over the course of the year, he would aggravate it every once and awhile, but for the most part it did not bother him.
Then on Oct. 19, 2009, he was again running on a treadmill, when he injured his thigh again. This time he decided to seek medical advice as how to fix the muscle tear.
His doctor ordered an MRI, and on Nov. 3, 2009, he was told he needed to meet with a surgeon because it was suspected that the mass was a cancerous tumor. A biopsy confirmed the worst.
"The cautionary tale is that early detection is obviously important, and I was foolish in ignoring it for almost a year," he said.
Dschaak and his wife, Shanna Monahan, headed to the Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minnesota, for surgery.
"In 2009, they cut the tumor out. I went through five months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation, and I lived at Mayo clinic for six weeks," he recalled.
The cancer went away and things were looking good, then from 2010 to 2014 the cancer returned to his lungs four times.
Then from 2014 until Dschaak's latest trip to Mayo Clinic in January, he had been in remission.
Dschaak said it wasn't easy telling his kids about the diagnosis.
"The last time this happened, Dalyn was seven and Danica was five. When they are 13 and 11, they certainly understand the circumstances much better and you can see and hear the concern," Dschaak said. "You never feel good about worrying your children, but it's nice to know they are worried about you. They are incredibly resilient kids and we will all get through this together."
Dschaak commended his wife for being the family's "rock."
"I know Shanna well enough to know that this is uncomfortable and painful, but much like myself, she's chosen to take the approach that we will get through this together. We will get to the other side of this and we will be OK," he said.
Dschaak said they are a faith-based family who whose church family at Grace Lutheran in Sturgis have been incredibly supportive.
"When things are tough, those that grew up in the church get drawn more strongly to it. I just think that's God's way of speaking to you to hang in there," he said.
The staff at PVE organized an opportunity for the school and community to show their support by purchasing Team DschaakTt-shirts which read: "Team Dschaak. Never Defeated."
A note was sent home with students about Dschaak's illness and included an order form for shirts. Ten years ago after Dschaak's first cancer diagnosis, they had shirts made that said: "Team Dschaak – Game On."
"This time we changed it to 'Never Defeated' because when Mr. Dschaak announced his diagnosis to the staff he just said, "This is not going to defeat me. This is just a bump in the road,'" said Samantha Spear, Piedmont Valley Elementary School Administrative Assistant.
She said sales of the shirts have been amazing.
An announcement about the shirts was shared districtwide and to students.
"The student order alone is huge," Spear said.
Spear said Dschaak is holding strong and not being defeated by his illness.
"We know he wants to get back here and keep going," Spear said.
Staff at the school have become even closer because of what their leader is going through, Waider said.
"We've been through something pretty major together. We're kinda like family around here. It's like sending an older brother off to Mayo clinic," she said.
Dschaak is an endearing person, Waider said.
"He's goofy. He always has a funny story to share. He makes PVE a fun place to be," she said.
And Dschaak is a true survivor, Waider said.
"After that initial diagnosis, we didn't know what was in store for him and his young family. It's been quite a journey," she said.
This time, Waider believes the power of having so many young souls sending positive thoughts can only help.
"When you have 500 children behind you, you have got to draw some strength from that," she said.
A smile here or a high-five there can't help but make you feel good, Dschaak said.
He said he has had a number of little ones, including the note-writing, candy-carrying kindergartener, ask him what is going on.
"She told me she was thinking about me and gave me a hug. It was the cutest thing ever. I try to be encouraging and tell them it's going to be OK. I truly believe it will be," he said.