Sharonda “Shay” Eiler has never been one to take anything in life for granted. That includes her health and the well-being of everyone in her close circle of family and friends.
The single mom of four is an advocate extraordinaire for her children who all have complex health conditions. They are all too familiar with the inside of emergency rooms and hospitals.
Shay had her own health scares with a diagnosis of cervical cancer years ago. But the last thing she expected was a diagnosis of breast cancer at age 39.
Looking back, she thinks she may have had a heightened awareness about the risk for young women to get breast cancer. A close friend was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was five months pregnant.
All Shay knows is that one night she was aware that a spot on her breast felt itchy. It was an odd sensation – something that had never happened before.
The next day, Shay called her doctor and asked about a check-up. That’s when a whirlwind of tests, appointments and treatment engulfed Shay.
“I would not have gone for the testing if it had not been for my friends with cancer,” she said.
Cancer doesn’t wait for a convenient time
It was March of 2020. Everything was shut down as COVID-19 started to spread quickly across the country. Shay’s doctor didn’t want her to wait for an appointment and set her up for an ultrasound at an imaging center near her home in Michigan City.
Midway into the test, the technician had concerns that Shay needed a mammogram first. A flurry of phone calls gave Shay the orders she needed for a diagnostic screening that afternoon. That’s when the radiologist identified numerous tumors in Shay’s left breast. Shay immediately returned to the technician for a complete ultrasound.
Two days later, Shay had a biopsy that confirmed everyone’s suspicions of cancer. The radiologist saw troubling indicators in the results and sent the images to Mayo Clinic for a definitive diagnosis.
When the results came back, Shay’s radiologist knew she needed treatment by a specialist in complex breast cancers. He arranged for Shay to bypass local cancer treatment facilities and referred her to Goshen Retreat Women’s Health Center, a nationally accredited breast center in Goshen, Indiana.
“Everything happened very quickly,” Shay said. “I didn’t have time to process everything because it was appointment after appointment after appointment.”
Combination of conventional medicine and holistic therapies provide best possible care
The first time Shay met Dr. Laura Morris, a fellowship trained breast surgical oncologist at the Retreat, she knew she was in the right place.
“Dr. Morris was wonderful,” Shay said. “She had so much information for me – pictures and diagrams, brochures, handouts. I didn’t have to worry about jotting things down. It was very comforting for me.”
Everyone Shay came in contact with at the Retreat and Goshen Center for Cancer Care reinforced her confidence.
“I was willing to drive an hour-and-a-half one way from home for over two years because of the way I was treated there,” she said. “This could’ve been a big, huge, scary ordeal, but it wasn’t. The people make all the difference in an experience like this.”
Shay chose to have a double mastectomy as the best option to lower her risk of the cancer coming back. She also hoped she would need no other treatment, if all the tumors were localized. Instead, Shay learned after surgery that she had invasive ductile and lobular tumors that had spread into her lymph nodes. She also had pre-cancerous cells called ductal carcinoma in situ or DCIS.
After recovery from the surgery, Shay started on an aggressive treatment plan that included 12 weeks of chemotherapy and 25 rounds of radiation. She also took advantage of the integrative care that’s part of the cancer center program
“I love that Goshen incorporates all the naturopathic care into the program. It was very important for me,” Shay said. “The naturopathic doctor was able to treat almost all my symptoms with supplements, natural things – no medications.”
Side effects from active treatment and maintenance therapy continue to linger for Shay. She is relearning her body and defining her path forward in life.
“I know I am never going to be what I was before,” she said. “This is my new normal and I’m going to try to be the best possible version of it.”
For Shay, that means getting back to an active lifestyle with her kids. She and her teenagers love nothing more than an outdoor adventure, whether it’s camping, hiking, biking or kayaking.
Shay also pushed herself to get back to work so she could support her family. She traded in her teaching career for a nursing position at a local dialysis center. It’s her way to give back.
“You know what it’s like to sit in that chair for that long or have those bad days or have people not understand what you’re going through,” she said. “It’s really important for me to get back into society and make a difference.”
As Shay reflects on all she and her family have gone through in two years, she keeps coming back to her own words of wisdom that always guide her life.
“Cherish every moment,” she said. “Life is short – so don’t take it for granted. At the end of the day, all can be taken away in a moment.”