To most people, stage four colon cancer coupled with a cancerous brain tumor sounds like a death sentence.
But in Tina Shapley’s case, the diagnosis catapulted her into battle – one she’s been fighting vigorously the past six months.
In September, the Marshalltown resident and former director of the Marshalltown Central Business District, spent a month in the hospital undergoing two brain surgeries and another for colon cancer.
On Sept. 24, when the brain tumor was discovered during an MRI, doctors at Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines were preparing the wife and mother of three for the worst.
“The doctor who worked on my brain had told my family they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Shapley said. “I could have died during surgery, I could have become a vegetable, I could have lost my memory. Fortunately that didn’t happen.”
For the past two years, Shapley knew something was wrong. Her energy level was low. She was exercising regularly but not gaining any strength. She just didn’t feel right.
Despite inquiries to her physician, the cancer went undetected. At 42 years old, colon cancer seemed unlikely.
Rather than press the issue, Shapley began developing her own theories.
“I got to the point that I felt like I was being foolish. I wondered if I was stressed or depressed. Or an idiot,” she said. “I’d go to the doctor and they’d say there’s nothing wrong with me.”
So she went on with life. She organized many successful downtown events as the MCBD director, including the award-winning Main Street Farmers Market. She secured grants, spurred downtown development and otherwise kept busy working, often exceeding 50 hours a week.
But while she was making gains with her career, her energy was dwindling.
“At the first farmers market, I was able to carry two tables out by myself, I was doing tae kwon do two times a week,” she said. “By the end of the farmers market I could only carry one table. My energy was low it was slowly zapping me.”
In August, she resigned from her job, having made the decision to work on some personal projects and spend more time with her family. Still feeling something was off, she thought the time was right to get a second opinion.
But before that could happen, she became terribly ill.
“I was black and blue everywhere because I was falling all the time,” Shapley said. “If I got off of the couch, I fell. I couldn’t stand.”
She was diagnosed with vertigo and prescribed physical therapy.
“The worst part was I couldn’t take my kids to school,” she said. “I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t walk up and down stairs. It was awful.”
Shapley is confident her cancer could have been caught sooner.
“If you think something is wrong, be insistent,” she said. “Get a second opinion – I put off a second opinion for about a year.”
The symptoms continued until a brain tumor was discovered, and she was taken by emergency ambulance to a Des Moines.
A renewed sense
After three surgeries, doctors at the John Stoddard Cancer Center at Iowa Methodist said they were confident all the cancer was successfully removed.
Her husband, Alex Gardea, who travels extensively working as an implementation engineer, spent a month at her bedside. Now he struggles with worry as he travels, often working for five weeks and then returning home for five days.
“He’s not happy being away all the time while we go through this,” Shapley said. “I feel bad because I don’t like to talk on the phone, and a lot of times fatigue sets in, and I don’t have the strength.”
Gardea said he cherishes his family more than ever.
“It doesn’t matter how well you prepare, you’ll never be prepared for something like this,” he said.
The couple’s three daughters have come a long way in understanding their mom’s illness. At first the three girls were too scared to even argue with each other, as siblings typically do. Her youngest daughter was frightened by Shapley’s hair loss.
“She came to the hospital after they shaved all my hair off – I looked like an Army recruit,” Shapley said. “She wouldn’t give me a hug because she didn’t recognize me … I had to wear a hat in order to get a hug and a kiss.”
These days Shapley, more often than not, wears a hat to cover what she calls “her nakedness.”
“I laugh about it because the other alternative is to cry,” she said.
Cancer has sidelined Shapley in more ways than one.
“I was extremely active and always doing something,” she said. “Now, I walk up a flight of stairs and it wears me out. It’s frustrating.”
The side effects from chemo try to keep her down. She’s very sensitive to cold. The nausea is demobilizing.
“There are usually two episodes after chemo where I don’t want to talk to anyone, I don’t want anyone to be in my room,” she said. “You cry and moan because the pain is so bad. You just have to ride it out.”
She finds comfort knowing she’s surrounded by support.
Her family has always been close, but cancer has brought them closer. Shapley’s mother has become a caretaker for Tina and her three young daughters.
“There is a renewed since of love. Sometimes you forget to say I love you,” she said. “Now you remember how important it is to say that. It’s good to hear it.”
Meanwhile, the support from the Marshalltown community has been inspirational.
“All of a sudden it was ‘if you need a ride, if you need food, if you need anything we’ll help you,'” she said. “It’s been overwhelming … the way people have treated me since this has happened has renewed my sense of faith. It’s reinvigorated me.”
In January, she started participating in the Livestrong program at the Marshalltown YMCA-YWCA. Attending twice a week, she’s making connections with other cancer survivors.
“When you hear ‘stage four cancer,’ you know that it’s not a good thing,” she said. “It was great to go to that first class and over half the people had type four cancer and survived it … five, six, seven years later, they are still going strong. It was a relief to know you can overcome.”
Sue Fehrmann, health and wellness coordinator at the Y, said that’s exactly what makes the Livestrong program successful.
“They meet here and form new friendships,” she said. “They’re going through something only they can understand.”
Paying it forward
On Monday, following a series of tests and doctors appointments, Shapley will find out if she is still cancer-free.
Shapley says she has complete faith in her doctors; she anticipates hearing good news.
“They rally for you, and they keep you positive,” she said. “You need to have a positive attitude because a ‘woe is me’ kind of thing isn’t going to work.”
Just as she’s learning the next steps in her treatment process, and reflecting on the help she’s received, she’s already looking for ways to pay it forward.
The American Cancer Society came through with grant money just when Shapley and her family needed it the most.
“Even though I was exhausted, I would lay awake at night stressing, trying to figure out how we were going to do this,” she said.
With a hefty deductible looming, she received the best Christmas present to date – a letter from the American Cancer Society approving up to $10,000 to help her pay for doctor’s visits and chemotherapy.
Neal Bohnet, community relations staff partner for the American Cancer Society, said Relay for Life made the grant possible.
“The grant is strictly funded by donations the American Cancer Society receives through Relay for Life events,” Bohnet said.
Donations raised in Marshall County are distributed in Marshall County, he said.
“Team Tina” will kick off its fundraising effort for the Marshall County Relay for Life from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 2 at the Senior Citizens Center. All proceeds from the soup lunch and bake sale go to Relay for Life, which will be held June 29 in Marshalltown.
It’s common, Bohnet said for cancer survivors to fundraise and create a team.
“They can celebrate, remember and fight back. They are giving back to someone who is going through the exact same thing,” he said.
Shapley said they’d always supported Relay for Life in the past, but this year will be different.
“We feel it’s very important to raise awareness and fight back against cancer,” Shapley said. “This time, it’s personal.”