Another tragedy puts cancer diagnosis into perspective

Shona Sladyk got the news at age 52 - as a daughter's best friend died in an accident.
Shona Sladyk got the news at age 52 - as a daughter's best friend died in an accident.
Posted: October 13, 2012

Through Oct. 17, Philly.com and The Inquirer will mark breast cancer awareness month by publishing a profile a day of transformative moments reported by patients. The series will culminate in a special Philly.com/Inquirer/Daily News section on Oct. 18, and can be viewed at www.philly.com/breastcancer.

Shona Sladyk works at the Vermont College of Medicine and is a registered member of the Breastcancer.org Online Community. This is her story:

"My most difficult moment in my cancer journey was the day I found out that my biopsy did, in fact, show cancerous cells. I was at work sitting at the front desk of the admissions office at the college of medicine when the phone went off and the anonymous woman at the other end told me very matter-of-factly that my biopsy showed cancerous cells and that I had to make some appointments to meet with the cancer team.

"I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

"I was 52, very healthy, very fit, great diet and this was not in my life plan. I put the phone down, in a state of shock and started crying. What was I going to do now? I decided I would stay at work for the day as my younger daughter was at home - summer vacation - and I couldn't tell her at this point. I knew if I went home I would fall apart. Staying at work would mean that I would have to keep it together.

"What happened next was to throw me into a complete tailspin. An hour later, after the phone call from the cancer center, and still reeling from the news, I got another phone call. My older daughter's best friend Kate had been killed in a bike accident in Tennessee. She was 22 and had been working as a whitewater rafting guide for the summer. Kate was one of those kids who had a brilliant future ahead of her. She was a star soccer player in high school and had gone on to play Division I soccer at college. She had finished her degree in physical therapy early and was about to embark on a master's degree. She was just an all-around great kid, and spent a lot of time at our house.

"Hearing about her death just floored me. I really didn't know what to do with my emotions. What was worse? Me having cancer or this young woman dying tragically?

"In my head at the time I felt incredibly lucky. It was almost like she died so I could live. I felt like I had made some terrible pact with the devil.

"My initial tears of fear for myself gave way to heaving sobs of sadness for Kate and her parents - she was an only child.

"The next awful step was to tell my daughter, Hannah. She was in Israel at the time with her grandmother and I didn't have a phone number for her, so I ended up having to send her a facebook message, knowing that she would definitely see that. That was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, apart from telling my husband that night that I had cancer.

"My story got better from then on. They had caught the stage one invasive ductal carcinoma early and after a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy, they found that it had not spread to my lymph nodes and the margins of the lumpectomy site were clean. I sailed through chemo and radiation with the help of acupuncture and a naturopathic doctor - no drugs at all, apart from some strategically placed marijuana and a lot of natural supplements.

"I am now even fitter and healthier than I was before and I have discovered a new outlook on life, but that is another story."


Michael Vitez can be reached at mvitez@phillynews.com.

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