Student recovering from breast cancer raises money for Relay for Life

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Student recovering from breast cancer raises money for Relay for Life

Shelly Feldman's friends from Vanderbilt made her a blanket filled with pictures of their memories together.

Shelly Feldman's friends from Vanderbilt made her a blanket filled with pictures of their memories together.

Shelly Feldman's friends from Vanderbilt made her a blanket filled with pictures of their memories together.

Shelly Feldman's friends from Vanderbilt made her a blanket filled with pictures of their memories together.

Zoe Shancer, Senior Editor

Leading up to the annual Relay for Life event, which raises money for the American Cancer Society, individuals and teams fundraise to remember those who have passed from cancer, those who are currently fighting back and those who are now cancer-free.

Junior Shelly Feldman is the second largest fundraiser so far, having raised $5,250, and is also one of those who is currently fighting back, as she was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of this year.  

Shelly’s diagnosis

One night, Shelly felt a hard mass under her skin.

“It literally felt like someone put a rubber bouncy ball under my skin, and I was just like ‘Hmm what is this?’ I never noticed it,” Shelly said.

She went to bed that night and forgot about the lump until the next week, when she felt it again. Her first instinct was not that something was wrong, but she wanted to be proactive and headed to the Student Health Center.

“There was nothing that stood out for the doctor that anything would be wrong, but still she wanted to play it safe.”

The doctor at the health center said that the lump looked and felt normal, and was optimistic given that Shelly was 20 years old and healthy.

“There was nothing that stood out for the doctor that anything would be wrong, but still she wanted to play it safe,” Shelly said.

The doctor referred Shelly to the Vanderbilt Breast Center to get an ultrasound. The doctors there said they were pretty sure it was a fibroadenoma, a benign tumor common in young women. Shelly had a biopsy on April 25 and was told she would hear the result in five days or less.

“Wednesday April 27, I was walking to the library to start to do this take-home final, and I’m getting a call from a 615 number, and I’m so excited because I’m like ‘Okay it’ll just be over,’” Shelly said. “‘I’ll know everything is fine and put it behind me.’”  

Shelly answered the call, and the nurse practitioner started by saying “Shelly, I don’t know how to tell you this.” She went on to tell Shelly that “the next 6 to 9 months of your life are not going to be what you expected in any way.”

“I cannot even describe how it felt in that moment,” Shelly said. “I thought I was in a dream, and it still feels like that.”

Shelly felt very confused, and left school the next day. She had appointments scheduled for the following day with oncologists and surgeons near her home in the suburbs of Chicago.

“It’s kind of scary to me how quickly it became normal,” Shelly said. “I remember I was really nervous to come home because obviously it wasn’t the summer or the fall that I expected.”

Shelly had planned to go abroad to Cape Town, South Africa in the fall, but had to forgo these plans.

“I had spent so many minutes thinking about where I wanted to go abroad, and I was finally so happy when I applied to Cape Town, and then I was stressed about getting a job,” Shelly said. “All these minutes I was so stressed about ended up being for nothing when this happened.”

Treatment

Shelly’s treatment plan was chemotherapy followed by surgery. She and her family decided to have her chemotherapy treatments done at Northwestern University Hospital. This treatment plan was decided based on the type of breast cancer, triple negative, with which Shelly was diagnosed. This type of cancer does not usually respond to receptor targeting treatments and can be particularly aggressive.

For Shelly, chemotherapy was the most difficult part of her treatment. Her treatment regimen lasted 16 weeks, where she had eight treatments, one every other week. On weeks where she didn’t receive treatment, Shelly commuted to the city of Chicago to intern for her senator.

“I’m such an active person, I’m used to doing a lot of things, and like being outside,” Shelly said. “But I essentially spent the whole summer sitting on my couch, when I wasn’t downtown working every other week. It’s just so exhausting. Everything you don’t want to feel. I would feel sick and just in general uncomfortable.”

“I looked like a completely different person, so it was hard for me to look in the mirror.”

Shelly used cold caps during her treatment, which cool the scalp and can be worn on the head to prevent chemotherapy drugs from affecting the hair follicles. She says she is grateful to have retained much of the length of her hair, although it is much thinner than it was before. The chemotherapy regimens built from week to week, and according to Shelly, the first drug she received was extremely tough to endure.

“I looked like a completely different person, so it was hard for me to look in the mirror,” Shelly said. “The hardest part was people not being able to relate. I have such great friends, and obviously everyone has such great intentions, but it was just so hard for everyone to be like ‘Stay positive. It’s only temporary,’ when they just have no idea. I saw everyone abroad and at school, so that was definitely a hard time.”

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Shelly Feldman celebrates completing her chemotherapy on August 23.

Once Shelly finished chemotherapy on August 23, she says that things started to improve quickly. Shelly regained some of her strength after chemotherapy, and underwent a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery on September 25. Shelly and her doctors chose this surgery because she tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation, which increases one’s chances of getting several cancers, particularly breast and ovarian cancers.

“Finding out that I had that result from the test was kind of reassuring because it completely explains why I got breast cancer in general, but also especially why I got it this young,” Shelly said. “It’s still strange for someone who has the mutation to get it this young, but it happens.”

The five-hour surgery went extremely well, according to Shelly, and the final pathology report showed that Shelly’s tumor shrank from about 3.5 cm to 1 mm. Her lymph nodes also tested negative, meaning that she didn’t need radiation after the surgery.

Recovery

Since surgery, Shelly says she has seen a lot of progress. She started working in the finance office for Hillary for America downtown three days a week, and has been going on walks until she can start running again, one of her favorite hobbies. She plans to start physical therapy soon to help her fully regain her movement.

“I’m at that point I’ve been waiting for for so many months,” Shelly said. “Now I’m just recovering. I’m going back to school in the spring. My hair is growing back, I have my eyebrows, I have my color.”

She says she feels much stronger and that her body is getting back to where it was.

“So much is happening so fast and it’s so exciting, like things I never thought I’d be excited about, like my eyebrows being overly bushy,” Shelly said. “I used to always pluck my eyebrows, just little moments and things where I’m like I’m so happy this is happening.”

Shelly says that this experience opened her eyes to how common breast cancer and cancer, in general, is.

“1 in 8 women get it in their life,” Shelly said. “That’s a crazy statistic. I talked to some adults, some of my mom’s friends, some of my friends’ parents, which was so helpful to talk to anyone who had been through it.”

What was challenging for Shelly was that while she was 20 years old when she was diagnosed, many of the women she spoke with were much older when they endured their battles. One woman who was 31 years old when she was diagnosed reached out to Shelly after reading her blog, which she had created because she likes writing and wanted to share her feelings and progress with the people in her life.

“Now I’m just recovering. I’m going back to school in the spring. My hair is growing back, I have my eyebrows, I have my color.”

Shelly also joined an organization called Imerman Angels that matches cancer patients with someone in their area with the same cancer at the same stage of life. Shelly says talking to the woman who she was paired with, who had breast cancer when she was 24, was helpful because she provided advice from the perspective of someone who knew exactly what she was going through.

Shelly hopes to feel fully recovered by Thanksgiving. Her outlook on life has changed – she is more optimistic and appreciative of what she has.

“I feel like I’ve been through something that so many people haven’t and will never experience. It’s just such a strange time in my life, not having a plan and everything going how it should,” Shelly said. “I think it’s going to only help me in the future when tough things come my way, I’ll just remember having to deal with this.”

She says she appreciates little things much more now, like having an appetite and drinking a lot of water, things that were difficult during her chemotherapy regimen.

“I’m still tired and worn down and I’m just not how I was before like physically and mentally,” Shelly said. “I’m still waiting to get back to how I was, but I feel like I don’t even know if I’ll ever get back to how I was because now I’m just not that person again. This is something that just totally changes my whole life. I think I’ll think about this every day.”

Because talking to other people who had been through the same experience as Shelly was helpful for her, she hopes to do the same for others.

“I hope … that I can be a resource and someone who people can go to if they, God forbid, have to go through this,” Shelly said.

She also hopes to be an advocate for early detection.

“If I just hadn’t gone to the doctor, my prognosis would have been so much worse,” Shelly said. “It’s scary because for a second I remember thinking, ‘Oh I’ll just not go to the doctor’ because a lot of teenagers and people 20 years old, you never think something could actually be wrong with you, no one does.”

Shelly says that she acts an example of someone who is healthy, young and active, yet still had to face cancer.  

“It’s just kind of a wake up call to people that we aren’t invincible and that things change so quickly,” Shelly said.

Shelly is grateful for the family and friends who stood by her side through this journey and who will continue to support her going forward.

“I’m so lucky to have supportive family and supportive friends who made horrible days actually good days,” Shelly said. “I’m so grateful for that. I feel like we all take that for granted, how lucky we are.”

Relay for Life impact

Shelly wanted to get involved in Relay for Life because she saw the impact that cancer has on oneself as well as one’s family and friends. She also feels that she was lucky with her treatments and surgeries, and that this luck wouldn’t be possible without the doctors and advances in medicine that have been supported by organizations such as Relay for Life.

“I always would donate to people’s Relay accounts, but never raised money myself,” Shelly said. “I’ve always known it was a great cause, but it wasn’t until I really was affected by cancer myself when I saw how important it was to have support and fundraising for people who have the disease.”

The money donated to Relay for Life goes to the American Cancer Society, and according to Relay for Life Co-President Emily Hernandez, the group can make requests regarding where specifically they want to see their money go. Vanderbilt Relay for Life asks that their money goes to cancer research in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center as well as to the Nashville Hope Lodge, which offers lodging at no cost for cancer patients being treated in the Nashville area.

“This is something that just totally changes my whole life. I think I’ll think about this every day.”

According to Hernandez, with the amount Shelly has already raised for Relay for Life, over 100 patients would be able to have over 5 free nights at the Hope Lodge.

“Even though she’s not on campus and she’s never been on the Relay for Life board before, she’s impacted so many people and gotten so many people involved,” Hernandez said. “I don’t think she knows how much she’s impacted the campus without even being here, but she definitely has changed a lot of people’s lives.”

In addition to their fundraising efforts, Relay for Life hopes to make a home on campus for those affected by cancer.

“Shelly will always have support from us and we are so proud of everything she’s done, even though she’s in the middle of fighting her battle,” Hernandez said. “It’s honestly amazing.”

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