Overcoming all odds
WORTHINGTON -- Everyone has a story. This, Sharon Kelly knows.
The Worthington woman has been busy in recent weeks going door to door in her neighborhood and around the community selling luminary bags and butterfly sponsorships for this weekend's 14th annual Nobles County Relay for Life, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.
Kelly, a two-time cancer survivor, will serve as Honorary Chair of the event and speak during the 7 p.m. opening ceremony Friday at the Nobles County Fairgrounds in Worthington.
She hopes to see the sun shine on the event, and encourages the entire community to come out and help support the fight against cancer.
"There's always someone that somebody knows that's had cancer," Kelly said. "It seems like it affects a lot of people."
The Relay for Life is meant to bring people together to celebrate, remember and fight back -- the three stages of cancer that are recognized in the overnight event. The evening sunshine represents an individual going through life without any trouble, while the darkness of night represents the darkest times when a cancer patient gets the news and begins the course of treatment. The sun then rises in the morning to signify the dawning of a new day -- a day when the cancer is gone and the patient has become a survivor.
"Everyone that shows up for (the Relay), I believe they have the same type of interest in helping to try and rid cancer," said Kelly. "To just think that a group of people can get together and feel good about something -- want to participate and show interest, even give up their time -- it's (appreciated).
"Cancer is something that affects all kinds of people," she added. "It does not discriminate no matter what age you are."
Eighteen years ago, Kelly went to her doctor expecting the worst after her thyroid began acting up. She had gained nearly 30 pounds in a span of a couple of months, was always tired and was well aware that thyroid problems ran in her family's medical history.
But unlike the thyroid issues some in her family experienced, Kelly was told her thyroid was afflicted with cancer cells.
Having mentally prepared herself for that kind of news, Kelly said she told herself she could beat it -- and that she would beat it. After all, she had husband Tim and two young sons, then ages 4 and 6, who depended on her.
She underwent surgery in Sioux Falls, S.D., to have half of her thyroid removed, but when tests came back the next day showing there was still cancer present, she was wheeled back into the operating room and the remainder of her thyroid removed. Following the surgery, Kelly was given a series of three low-level radioactive iodine treatments. She then went into isolation in the hospital for a heavier dose after the smaller doses appeared ineffective in killing off the remaining cancer particles.
It took about nine months after the surgery for Kelly to get regulated with the medications she'd need to be on for the rest of her life, but it was more like five years before she finally felt comfortable in saying she was a cancer survivor.
"I bet every cancer survivor has that thought that pops in once in a while that it could give me trouble again, it could come back," she said. "I can't believe that people don't have that thought occasionally -- you just don't want to dwell on it, that's all."
Kelly didn't dwell on it. Her family returned to a more normal life, the boys grew up, graduated from high school and went on to college. Everything seemed to be going well.
Then, in late 2007, Kelly went to the doctor for what she thought were signs of menopause. She still remembers the shock of being told she had Stage 3 cervical cancer.
"I guess I knew you could get cancer more than once in your life, I knew cancer can return, and I did know you could have two different kinds of cancers, but I don't know how often that happens," Kelly said. "I was pretty shocked on that one."
She wasn't as mentally prepared for the battle this time. Stage 3 cancer is more advanced, and she learned through her research that worldwide, a woman dies from cervical cancer every two minutes.
"I thought, well, I did it once, I'll do it again," she recalled. "My husband helped me a lot with that, too. When I got toward the end of my treatment I thought, I just don't know if I can do this anymore. He said, 'You can do it, and you will do it."'
The one bright spot in Kelly's diagnosis was that her cancer hadn't metastasized. She underwent surgery in November 2007, followed by six weeks of external radiation treatments and four sessions of internal radiation. By February 2008, she began four months of chemotherapy treatments.
Kelly was too weak to attend her oldest son's college graduation in May 2008, but with Kyle studying neurophysiology and now enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Boulder, Colo., she promises to be there when he graduates with his doctoral degree. Younger son Korey is in the electrical engineering program at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City.
After 18 years and two bouts with cancer, Kelly has not only experienced the loss of friends to cancer, she has watched as strides have been made in cancer treatments. Still, she also realizes there's still a long way to go.
"I feel I'm very lucky that I did (survive) and I'm very grateful for every day that I have," she said with tears in her eyes. "I believe every survivor feels that way."