Survivor Since: 2015

Diagnosis: Breast Cancer

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

Staying Positive in the Grit of Care

Even while facing her own battle with cancer, medical ICU nurse Shelby Hunter keeps a positive outlook and puts her patients first.

For as long as she can remember, Shelby Hunter wanted to be a nurse.

“I love being able to actually make a difference in people’s day — this moment in their life,” says 25-year-old Shelby, who works as a medical ICU nurse at University Hospital in Columbia. “I thought about being a doctor, but I wanted to be the bedside in the grit of the care for people.”

Shelby gained a new perspective of bedside care when she became a patient herself. In August 2015, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even as she faced tough medical issues, though, and throughout her treatment, she was determined to keep working.

“She worked through chemo, with no hair, through everything,” says Brenda Hunter, Shelby’s mom. “I think some of her patients found comfort in knowing what she was going through. She’s an inspiration to so many.”

For Shelby, working seemed to aid her treatment.

“Telling my story helped me through it,” Shelby says. “It helped me get out of my own body, to understand this is how it feels, to reflect and understand.”

A Rare Diagnosis

Admittedly, Shelby says her treatment was “rough,” with an initial round of three treatments a week for nine weeks. At one point, she was hospitalized from dehydration and not eating.

“I was so sick, I couldn’t function at home,” she says. “I survived on Boost and the medicine they gave to me.”

The next round — six more weeks of treatment — was better. Switching to Paclitaxel helped her feel like a human again, she says. On Dec. 18, 2015, she was finished.

“I’m still very anemic, tired,” she says. “But I’m rebounding.”

Genetic testing revealed that Shelby’s breast cancer was a symptom of a rare disorder called Li-Fraumeni syndrome. An inherited genetic mutation, Li-Fraumeni significantly increases the risk of developing many types of cancer in one’s lifetime, which means, for Shelby, there is a great chance that breast cancer won’t be the only cancer she will have to face.

Often, the syndrome surfaces in childhood, so Shelby counts herself as lucky.

“In a way, I’m fortunate,” she says. “A lot of people have childhood cancers.”

For others with Li-Fraumeni, the inherited disease might not come as such a surprise, but Shelby, who is adopted, had no family history to draw upon.

“I had no idea (Li-Fraumeni) even existed — definitely a big shock,” Shelby says. “This could continue my whole life.”

Although she lacked her own biological family’s history, Shelby’s adoptive family had their own struggles with cancer.

“Cancer took one of the closest people I had in my life,” Shelby says, reflecting on the passing of her great-grandma from pancreatic cancer when Shelby was 10.

An aunt and a great-aunt have also battled cancer (one with breast cancer and one with lymphoma), but Shelby’s peripheral knowledge of the disease was nothing compared to what she learned through her own struggle.

“I had good medical knowledge but not emotional knowledge,” Shelby says.

Finding Control Again

One of the things she learned was the outpouring of support it takes from others to get through the fight.

“The second I had the horrendous task of telling my family, I had such a rush of support,” she says.

She also learned how quickly things can change. Before her diagnosis, Shelby says she was a “super incredible, Type A” personality.

“I planned everything to the minute, six months in advance,” she says. “I’m still Type A but more able to take things as they come now.”

Shelby was living with her boyfriend, Sullivan, at the time she was diagnosed; they had been dating two years at the time. She says she got so sick so fast, she wasn’t sure what each day would bring or how she would be able to function.

As a young woman, Shelby faced both the physical and emotional toll from her breast cancer. Losing her hair and choosing a bilateral mastectomy at age 24, the physical beating her body took from the treatment left her at a very emotional low.

“I didn’t feel like a young person anymore,” she says.

Sullivan stayed with her throughout the process. “He told me, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’” she says.

When her hair began falling out in chunks, he shaved his own head into a mullet and a Mohawk. “He made a traumatic experience not so terrible,” Shelby says.

Despite how awful she felt during her treatment, Shelby found the strength to focus on herself.

“I made sure to do things with my friends,” she says. “I didn’t let it sequester me.”

Taking a bath, reading a book, taking the dog for a walk — she took power from the ability to do little things to care for herself and gained a sense of control in a time when her body didn’t feel like her own.

They Keep You Positive

As her daughter progressed through the ordeals of her treatment, including a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, Brenda watched Shelby draw upon her self-confidence and an internal strength.

“We hit it head on,” Brenda says about facing Shelby’s trials. “We had to deal with it.”

Shelby kept her focus forward, with the support of her family and Sullivan, plus Dr. Joseph Muscato and the rest of the team at Missouri Cancer Associates.

“I have felt very comforted,” Shelby says about her experience at MCA. “They know each individual person. They know who you are, what your treatment is and what they can do for you.”

Shelby says she thought coming to MCA would be “an awful, depressing place.” She was surprised when it wasn’t.

“Unfortunately, you have to go there, but sometimes you want to,” she says. “They don’t let you get down. They keep you positive.”

Her mother agrees.

“It’s a place you don’t think you want to be, but when you are going through it, you want to be there,” Brenda says. “Even as a parent, they have a special place for you there.”

One Day at a Time

As a breast cancer survivor, Shelby now faces the reality of living with the knowledge that she has Li-Fraumeni. Her new normal is focused on prevention, watching for anything suspicious and working with her medical team for ultrasounds, colonoscopies, comprehensive dermatology checks and more — tests and scans that few women her age have to think about.

A yearly full-body sequence MRI is also part of her medical surveillance. However, there was not a standardized method of doing this. Dr. Rafael Marroquin and John King of the Boone Hospital Center radiology department worked for several weeks to devise a method of performing the scans. This was aided by the availability of the new state-of-the art MRI scanner at Boone Hospital’s Nifong clinic. Marroquin even tested out the scans on himself to make sure the sequences were correct before doing them on Shelby.

Brenda says Shelby has always been very observant of her body — any infection or pain — a trait that now serves her well as she navigates life with the possibility of cancer returning. Brenda has watched her daughter’s strength with admiration, and she is determined to be there for Shelby throughout the process.

“I truly don’t think she puts a front on, even when she was so sick,” Brenda says about Shelby’s positive focus.

“I have to take things one day at a time,” Shelby says, “not worry about the little things.” Over the past few years, Brenda has watched her daughter grow, particularly as a nurse, helping others.

“These experiences have helped her tremendously,” Brenda says. “She knows what it is like to be in pain, nauseous. She values life for sure.”