Survivor Since: 2015

Diagnosis: Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Missouri Cancer Care Team:

Chemotherapy Care Team:

  • Amy Boyle, RN
  • Danielle Kleithermes, RN
  • Denise Huff, RN
  • Erin Swift, RN
  • Johanna Joes, RN
  • Mung Chin, RN

Treatment: Chemotherapy

A Survivor’s Story

For University of Missouri-Columbia student Selmeg Shagdarova, her MU studies are round two of her education — After the fall 2017 semester, she expects to graduate with a degree in health science, but she already completed medical school in her native country of Russia before moving to the U.S. in 2010.

What to do with her soon-to-be achieved degree weighs on her mind as she considers her next options.

“I’m trying to get into graduate school,” she says. “Physical therapy or doctor of osteopath. I’m leaning toward D.O.”

Most of her friends in Russia are already practicing medicine, she says, while she is again in school.

“It’s been a hard year,” she says.

Starting over, the challenges of completing her education in a second language, and weighing her options for the future are only part of her story — Selmeg’s U.S. education took a detour in 2016 when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

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Selmeg with family

After a break from classes to focus on treatment, she’s back on campus, and she says school is a huge focus for her. She loves college life and the unique vibe she gets from being around the undergraduate students, whom she describes as not children anymore, but still free from most of the heavy responsibility of adulthood.

“A lot of students don’t know my age,” the 32-year-old says, commenting they are often surprised to learn she is older than many of them. “I feel younger in class.”

Her medical background didn’t make understanding the reality of her diagnosis — the emotional and physical toll the disease would take — any easier.

“I tried to think logically. What can I get done?” she says about her initial reaction to her cancer diagnosis. “I wanted to be productive.”

Selmeg says she doesn’t know exactly when the leukemia took hold in her body, but she remembers starting to have low back pain and weight loss in the spring of 2015. Visits to the chiropractor didn’t help, and soon she had unexplainable ankle and knee pain as well. Over the next few months, she continued to lose weight, but she kept much of her symptoms to herself.

“I’m a private person,” she says. “You don’t ask. I don’t tell.”

Her family noticed her weight loss and pale skin, however, and urged her to see her doctor. In January 2016, she visited her primary physician, who drew bloodwork. Her hemoglobin level measured 7.5 grams (gm) per deciliter (dL). Normal range for an adult woman is 12 to 16 gm/dL. By the next morning, when she saw another doctor, her hemoglobin level had dropped even farther, to 5.9 gm/dL.

“I couldn’t drive,” Selmeg remembers, recalling how her sister rushed her to the hospital. “I was in great pain.”

Selmeg says she was lucky that Dr. Uma Ramadoss from Missouri Cancer Associates was on call and ordered a bone marrow biopsy.

“Even the nurse seeing me said that she was glad he was on call,” she says. “Dr. Ramadoss suspected something, but I did not understand what he might be thinking.”

She remembers her boyfriend Shawn saying the word “cancer.”

Selmeg Shagdarova with friends

“I said ‘no.’ The pain was pulsing, not constant,” says Selmeg. “(A cancer diagnosis) didn’t make sense to me.”

“In my whole family, no one thought I would die,” she says, reflecting on the immense support and positivity she received from her family.

Concerns about Selmeg’s age and preserving her fertility, discussion of treatment options and talk about the rapid pace that leukemia can advance swirled around her.

Together, Selmeg, her medical team and her family focused on what she would do be successful with treatment.

Selmeg is the middle child with two sisters close in age. Her family is female-strong, with her sisters, mom, aunts, grandma and cousins all in the United States.

“My family was always there,” she says about the chemotherapy treatment she immediately began.

She had lost nearly 40 pounds and was down to 115 pounds on her 5-ft., 7-inch frame by the time she had entered the hospital. Her family brought favorite foods to her — meaty dishes to put weight back on her bones and rebuild her strength.

Grateful to her family for keeping her fed, she is also grateful they urged her to see a doctor.

“When you are in pain, you can’t see reality,” Selmeg says. “Me? Cancer? It can’t be. No, I don’t have this.”

Selmeg Shagdarova during treatment

Selmeg says her stubborn side kicked in when faced with a course of eight chemo treatments, each requiring a four- to five-day hospital stay.

“I would drive myself home after treatment. The nurse thought I was crazy,” she says.

She feels the full emotional realization about her cancer diagnosis truly hit her around the fourth or fifth chemo treatment.

“We talked about the situation (infusion room) a little, but mostly had a general, casual conversation,” Greg says. “Everyone had accepted where they were and what they were going to do.”

The experience with fellow patients in the infusion room had a profound effect on him.

“Despite their own problems, they did everything they could to make me feel welcome, comfortable and ‘normal,’” Greg says. “They were nothing short of inspirational. After that, I had no fear of infusion and felt a growing sense of optimism about my situation.”

Greg completed his three rounds of chemo with minimal side effects. His daughter Cori would call from her home in Seattle and keep him company during the treatment. His other daughter Gina would put his grandkids on FaceTime to bolster his spirit.

“My wife was a rock throughout this process,” he says. “She and our children and our families provided all the moral support necessary to help me do what I needed to do. They were fantastic.”

Looking back, Greg feels overwhelmed with emotion — something that takes him a little aback.

“I haven’t been emotional until this process,” Greg says of reflecting on his experience. “I don’t know what it is, but part of it is the random acts of kindness.”

“We had a lot of them,” Ginny adds simply, with gratitude.

“I started breaking down,” she says. “It was summertime and I couldn’t go outside for even 10 minutes. When it was hot, I felt like I couldn’t get enough air. I was drained out.”

Selmeg Shagdarova with family

Completing treatment in July stopped the chemotherapy, but depression settled like a weight upon her. Few people knew what she had undergone and was still dealing with, and without school, without work, she found herself apathetic.

“I didn’t feel well, and it was like a snowball effect,” she says. “I didn’t want to do anything.”

She’s more cautious these days about her diet, risk of infection and overall health, but says she is in a positive place.

“Everything looks good,” she says. “There’s a high chance the disease will not come back, and it makes me feel optimistic about my future.”

She urges others to seek explanation for unaccountable pain and to listen to their loved ones.

“Trust someone who see you from the outside,” she says. “I should have listened to my family earlier. It may not have affected my diagnosis — they may not have caught it earlier — but I am glad my family pushed me to go to the doctor.”

For Selmeg, the people at MCA and Boone Hospital have been a great source of support throughout her cancer fight. Everyone — from the front desk staff at MCA, to those working in the lab and pharmacy, to the technicians who take vitals, to the chemo room nurses — are “caring, wonderful people,” says Selmeg.

“I know all personnel that have ever worked with me,” she says. “They have been with me through some rough times. I love these people, and I hope that I have met not just great professionals, but also some of them I can consider as friends.”

Selmeg Shagdarova at Graduation

Selmeg says she found relief by re-immersing herself into her school work and starting classes again. Today, she follows a maintenance chemotherapy schedule — once a month via a port in her chest and daily pills — with a goal to keep the cancer from returning.

She’s found it easier to tell others about her cancer fight, but still struggles with sharing that part of her life.

“I tried to hide it because some people treat you like you are dying,” says Selmeg.

Selmeg is grateful for the continued support from her family. In January 2017, her oldest sister had a baby boy, and she enjoys helping the young family out on the weekends.

“I’m feeling happier this past few months than I have in the past few years. As long as he smiles at me, I can forgive him for any crying,” she says about her interaction with her nephew.