By Kelly Baughman
October is breast cancer awareness month, and being the second most common kind of cancer in women, about 1 in 8 women born today in the United States will be diagnosed at some point. But the good news is that most women can survive breast cancer with early detection and a will to fight.
That was the case for Lillian’s Pizza co-owner Shannon Walsh. At just 40 years old, Walsh, a mother of two young children, said she wasn’t quite feeling like herself but chalked it up to the stress of daily life. “I was absolutely exhausted all the time, so I decided to see my doctor never once thinking anything was seriously wrong,” she said.
Walsh, a Pensacola native who met her husband and Lillian’s business partner, Chance Walsh, while in high school at Catholic, said she never thought cancer was even on the radar. Walsh and her husband had just taken over the family business after Chance’s mother, Lillian, lost her own battle with cancer. “My doctor ran some test and found that my hormone levels were off, so they put me on hormone replacements and within six weeks, I had developed a golf ball sized tumor in my breast,” Walsh recalled.
Thinking that the tumor was a normal side effect of the hormone therapy, Walsh waited nearly six months before she visited a doctor. She said, “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to address it, I just genuinely thought it was no big deal. I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Walsh saw Pensacola radiologist, Dr. Angel Williamson, and was shocked when Williamson pulled her into her office and told her that not only was the tumor cancerous, but that it needed to be addressed as Walsh recalled, “yesterday”. Feeling flabbergasted by the diagnosis, Walsh said she searched all over the southeast for a better second opinion. She didn’t find one.
What she did find was a doctor at the University of Alabama in Birmingham who conducted a test called KI67, a test designed to test the aggressiveness of cancer cells. “This doctor who was one of the best around told me that anything over a 20% on the test is considered aggressive. My score was 100%. He told me if I didn’t act right away, I was in big trouble,” she said. Walsh knew she couldn’t deny her diagnosis any longer. Within days, she was in for the fight of her life.
What came next was 16 grueling rounds of chemotherapy. Twelve rounds of the drug Taxol, and four rounds of Adriamycin, often called red devil, the most powerful and toxic of all chemotherapy drugs. “I didn’t know how I was going to get through this. I didn’t know what to expect. My doctor told me that I would be sick, but I never expected to be as sick as I was. It was the worst experience of my life, and I knew if I was going to get through this, I had to find something that offered me some kind of relief,” Walsh said.
That relief came in the form of acupuncture. Never a believer in alternative medicine or therapies, Walsh was reluctant to take the advice of her friend to see Dr. Bob Cowan, but was willing to give it a try to keep her body in the fight. “The first day I saw him, I was so sick that I couldn’t even sit up. I had a 104 degree fever, and was so weak I had to lay down in the backseat to get there. Within 45 minutes of receiving my acupuncture treatment, my nausea and fever were gone, my arms and legs regained their strength, and I was laughing with my friend. It was like a miracle,” she recalled.
From that day forward, Walsh saw Dr. Cowan three times a week which got her through the worst of her treatments. “I couldn’t have done it without the acupuncture, and I still see him regularly for various other things. For someone who didn’t believe the hoopla, I am a believer now,” said Walsh.
Another alternative method that Walsh used to combat the side effects of her treatments were Penguin Cold Caps, a drug free and non-invasive technique of scalp cooling, proven to be successful in minimizing hair loss during chemotherapy treatment.
“My daughter was only 4 years old when I had to tell her that I had cancer. When I told her that I might lose my hair and look different, it really scared her. I didn’t want that….and I didn’t want to look sick. I may have had cancer, but I didn’t want to give cancer the satisfaction of taking control of my appearance too,” she said.
The specially designed gel filled caps are cooled to an optimum temperature of around 30 degrees and causes the hair follicles and surrounding cells to enter into a hibernated state constricting blood vessels keeping the chemotherapy drugs from entering into the scalp. While Walsh said wearing the cold caps during treatment was an all day, and sometimes painful event, it helped her retain about 65% of her hair and maintain a sense of normalcy in her life.
“Being able to go out and not feel the eyes of people on me feeling pity for being sick made a big difference. I’m not the kind of person who lays in bed feeling sorry for themselves, and I refused to let cancer make me feel powerless. Taking back what control I could was a very liberating experience and I recommend that women give cold caps a try,” Walsh suggested.
Now in remission from her cancer, Walsh opted for a bi-lateral mastectomy which she said turned out to be another life-saving decision.
“My doctors told me that the tumor was gone, but I went ahead with the mastectomy as a precautionary measure. After the surgery, they told me they found another form of cancer that does not respond to chemotherapy drugs, and had I not done the surgery, it would have been a very bad situation,” Walsh said.
Having pin-pointed her cancer as a hormone responsive cancer, Walsh has changed many aspects of her life including her diet which now is mainly organic with no carbs or dairy, and has undergone a full hysterectomy and partial thyroidectomy to avoid hormonal effects on her body that may trigger cancer cells once again.
Walsh said that even though doctors say that it is uncommon for women in her age bracket to have breast cancer, she wants women of all ages to know that it can happen to you. “I know so many women my age and younger who have been effected with breast cancer, so it’s best to be safe rather than sorry. Check yourself, and get checked by a doctor. Especially if you find something,” she suggested.
She also recommends that women do their research and get informed on their diagnosis. “The internet can be scary when looking for health information, but keep a level head and take in the reliable sources. There were things the doctors didn’t tell me that I found out on my own. Don’t be afraid to do your homework. It may save your life.”
Now, enjoying and appreciating the simple things in life like spending more quality time with her family, Walsh said she’s taken on cancer and no longer gives it a moment more of her life. “Once I came out of denial and accepted my diagnosis, I chose to win for myself and my family. You can make the decision to let this disease consume you, or you can fight and live. And I know I’m a fighter.”