October 11, 2010 9:00:00 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
The nation''s rainbow trout may have nothing to fear from Alice Shands quite yet, but the newbie fly fisherwoman is thinking about changing that. And she won''t be letting breast cancer stop her.
In September, the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library director, and 13 other women living with stage four breast cancer, collected a few tall fish tales of their own in Skytop, Pa., on a Casting for Recovery weekend retreat. There were plenty of light-hearted moments as the new recruits were mentored in the fine art of casting, plenty of opportunities to put the disease out of mind, at least for a while.
Casting for Recovery is a non-profit support and educational program for women who have had or have breast cancer. It''s one of many groups marking the 25th anniversary of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
"The fly fishing was a wonderful experience; I''d love to try it again!" said Shands, showing off a pink, feathery souvenir fly pinned to her cap and laughing about the six "teeny-tiny" trout she reeled in during the catch-and-release weekend.
"Breast cancer has many faces," she said, thinking of the different women she met. "These were women who have gone through really difficult times -- a mother with small children she''s worried about leaving behind, someone who was in the Pentagon on 9/11, a cancer patient who just took a trip to Ireland -- they are going on with their lives. It was inspiring."
Heading off to Pennsylvania to participate in a new experience was in keeping with Shand''s philosophy: keep moving.
"I have not sat at home thinking about breast cancer," she firmly stated. "I''ve tried to find things that make me laugh and smile. You can''t stop doing the things that are fun for you."
Lows and highs
The library director is no stranger to emotional roller coasters. Three years after losing her husband to melanoma in 2000, Shands, then living in Indianola and head of the Sunflower County Library, discovered an irregularity on Mother''s Day Sunday that sent her straight to her doctor. Straight across the street, where her family physician lived. Tests were arranged for the very next morning.
Conflicting results on the road to an accurate diagnosis proved frustrating. Shands was even given a clean bill by one out-of-town specialist. "That''s what everyone wants to hear, isn''t it?" she said with a rueful smile. "I was on my way -- rejoicing!" Her Indianola physician wasn''t convinced, however, and fortunately urged further testing. Biopsies proved him right. In July 2003, she underwent a double mastectomy and had 11 lymph nodes removed.
"With my husband, we had eight hard months of his being sick," said the mother of one. "I thought we''d had what cancer we were going to have to deal with ... "
Through the toughest times, the godfather of soul helped the patient face each day.
"I had a little CD player by my bed, and every morning I played James Brown''s ''I Feel Good,''" she grinned. Her treatment proved successful; she even went on to chair Sunflower County''s Relay for Life.
With clean scans and a passion for her work, Shands took the director''s position at the Columbus library in late 2008. Eight months later, a regular check-up raised concerns, triggering weekly infusion treatments at the West Clinic in Southaven, where she received her earlier medical care, and close to her daughter, who lives in Memphis. The successful once-a-week regimen concluded in April; she currently goes every three weeks to be checked. Her current status is "N.E.D" -- no evidence of disease.
"I feel really great," Shands says, and it shows. She avoids fast foods and enjoys her trimmer frame. "I try to keep green vegetables and fruit in the house, so I''ll eat it every day -- but sometimes," she quipped, "all that will work is an ice cream sundae."
She meets her medical reality head on. "I have a chronic illness that will probably be terminal, but I obviously have something that is fairly slow-growing and is responding to the things we''re doing. Yes, I''m stage four, but I''m on a listserv (Team Inspire) every day, and there''s a woman there that is now 17 years out from the day she was diagnosed with stage four."
No doubt the world of medicine would credit Shand''s positive approach and zest for life among the strongest defenses possible against any disease.
Shands'' wish is that women of all ages be proactive in standing up to the second leading cause of cancer deaths in American women, according to the National Cancer Institute.
"No one knows your body like you do; you need to be aware of things," she urges, acknowledging that some women are still uncomfortable with self-exam. "Find a physician you''re comfortable with, get regular exams. I want women to take care of themselves.
"Don''t wait; it''s not going away," she added. There is a lot of living still to be done. When it comes to breast cancer, the "best catch" of a lifetime is catching it early.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.