WILLIAMSON – In support of Friday’s Relay for Life event, Tug Valley’s 2016 Miss Relay for Life, shared the story of her battle with cancer with the Williamson Daily News.
Shawna Belcher, from Varney, W.Va., began by explaining that she decided to do the interview with the hope that someone somewhere would be able to find inspiration and comfort in her story.
Shawna explained that her battle with cancer did not begin with diagnosis. It began with the struggle to arrive at a diagnosis. “It started in May of 2008 that I started having simple side effects. I had a little cough. This cough continued to progress and I had other side effects along with it: night sweats, fatigue, and shortness of breath. A few months down the road, I noticed a knot on the left side of my neck. I had it looked at and it wasn’t big enough to do any kind of biopsy. We monitored it but all these other symptoms we just couldn’t figure out. Weight loss was another biggie. I ended up losing 46 pounds through the whole treatment. I was losing four pounds a week,” Shawna explained.
Over time, Shawna’s symptoms became progressively worse and she explained that she had an intuitive ‘gut feeling’ that something was wrong. “Around December, I noticed a big change. I had been doing everything from asthma medicines to B12 shots, the works. In January after Christmas, I noticed that I couldn’t even get up to walk to the bathroom. I thought, ‘there is something wrong.’ I went to the emergency room and found out that my B12, my Vitamin D, my folate and my hemoglobin was low. They thought maybe I had tuberculosis. I had the test done for that. I didn’t have tuberculosis. I just knew that something was wrong. I ended up just calling my doctor and telling him I needed a chest x-ray. From May to January I had a consistent cough. I had the x-ray done. The doctor came straight in there and told me there was fluid around my lungs and that I needed to schedule a CT scan. Luckily enough, they were able to get me right in,” Shawna explained.
For Shawna, with diagnosis came peace. Shawna explained that she knew God would lead her through this difficult time. “The next day, they called me from the office and asked me to come in. When I asked them to tell me any details, the lady suggested that I bring someone with me. I was like, ‘Okay. I know there is something majorly wrong.’ The doctor came in to talk to me and told me he had good news and bad news. I told him to just shoot it straight. He said, ‘Well the good news is, you are going to be okay. You will be fine. The bad news is that it is lymphoma. The moment I found out that I had it, there was like a peace that came over me that I cannot explain to anyone,” Shawna stated.
Following diagnosis, Shawna quickly began chemotherapy treatment. “Within three weeks’ time of finding out, I started chemotherapy. My first chemo was very tough because I took a rare regiment that is not given very often because it is so strong. Where it was it was at, there wasn’t one particular tumor, it was throughout the blood stream. I had two choices. I could do the standard which would give a 50/50 chance of it not coming back again. Or I could have done BEACOPP. Each letter represents a medicine. I had an 80 percent chance of it not coming back if I went that route so I chose to go that route. I was also aware that it was very strong, very hard and a lot of people can’t complete it. Everything was in my favor. I was young, I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, and I wasn’t on any type of medications. I was perfectly healthy up to that point. I was diagnosed at 29 and spent my 30th birthday in chemo. Every birthday I have from here on, is a God given gift,” Shawna stated.
Throughout her treatment, Shawna explained that her faith kept her strong. “The physician I saw at UK was a lymphoma specialist. He was a very humble and Christian man which really helped. To me, that faith is a lot when you are going through something like this. That is what kept me strong through everything. I think God has led me in this path and it has made me a stronger person. I have been able to mentor to cancer patients since I have been through treatment. I had a lymphoma survivor mentor me. Everyone has a story. Until you have gone through cancer, that is when you can really relate. You can sympathize, be there for them and encourage them but to be able to really understand the emotions of it you have to actually go through it. That is one thing about cancer survivors and cancer patients – we relate. When I do hear that someone has been diagnosed, it really affects me personally because I know what they are up against. I know the battle that they are in for. You want to be there for them. The biggest encouragement is to pray and be there for them spiritually.”
Shawna continued stating, “My son was my biggest inspiration. He was four years old when I was diagnosed. He really didn’t understand. The biggest thing that bothered me through all of it was I wanted to make sure he was happy. I didn’t want any day to be a sad day for him. I didn’t know if I was guaranteed that next minute with him so I wanted to provide him with everything that I could give. The hard thing was that he always liked to play with my hair. When I lost my hair – I thought I was mentally prepared for that but I wasn’t. For a woman, I think it is the hardest thing you have to deal with is losing your hair. Your hair is a big part of you. It is who you are. I lost my hair two and a half weeks after I started treatment.”
Shawna explained that she would stay with her brother in Lexington while undergoing the eight rounds of chemotherapy required during her treatment and the importance of having family support. “I think family support is a big thing with any person going through something like that,” Shawna stated.
After battling cancer, Shawna feels that she is confident she can overcome anything. Shawna explained stating, “By God’s grace, I am still here and living it to the fullest. I don’t think anything that comes at me can be as hard as what I have been through. I have been through many battles since then and I know I am stronger than that. If I lean on the Lord, then that is all I need.”
These days, Shawna uses her experience as a way to serve as a light for others. She has spoken at two Relay for Life dinners. “I have been in remission for six years. I still go in for routine follow ups. I am doing this interview as part of Relay for Life. I go to the Relay for Life dinners every year. I actually spoke at the dinner the year I was going through chemotherapy in 2010 and then this year’s dinner the speaker that was supposed to have spoken wasn’t able to make it so they asked me to do it,” she explained.
Being crowned Miss Relay for Life didn’t require judges and a beauty pageant. Shawna described being crowned stating “At the annual Relay for Life dinner, they do a drawing for Mr. and Miss Relay for Life. Last year’s queen was Miss Rose Tackett who has passed on. When I found out that my name was drawn to be the 2016 Miss Relay for Life, I thought ‘wow, I have some big shoes to fill.’ The Queen and King will lead the Survivor Life on June 17 and we will be wearing our crowns. I think that will be nice. Winning Miss Relay for Life was fun and it is encouraging. It is all for fun. It is just that inspiration to let your light shine. I am looking forward to going to Relay for Life again this year.”
As a survivor, Shawna feels that it is important to support and give back to organizations that contribute to research and funding to assist cancer patients. “I always raise a little money and contribute to Relay for Life. I am also a big supporter of the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. That is who supported me; they helped me financially a little bit with my travels during my time of going to treatment,” Shawna explained.
The Tug Valley Relay for Life will be held Friday, June 17 at the Lefty Hamilton Park in West Williamson.
(Courtney Harrison is a news reporter for the Williamson Daily News. She can be contacted at [email protected] or at 304-235-4242 ext. 2279.)