Like any newly engaged college girl, sophomore Shannon Young will be busy this semester balancing school, work, church, and, as of this weekend, planning her wedding with her new fiancé.
A normal 21-year-old would be concerned with herself, and with the myriad details of wedding colors and flower arrangements and bridesmaids’ dresses. But for Young, normal took on a new meaning four and a half years ago, when doctors diagnosed her with cancer.
On the heartbreaking, sometimes horrific journey from that first hospital visit, her focus has since shifted from her own struggle to how it affects her loved ones.
“I’m not scared of dying,” she says, “but I wish I could be around after I die just to make sure [my family is] okay.”
It was August 2004, right before her sophomore year of high school. She was diagnosed with Synovial Sarcoma, a rare, chemo-resistant form of cancer that had previously been found only in infant boys. Within a month, she underwent surgery at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland to remove a softball-sized tumor from her neck.
Against speculations and expectations, the encapsulated tumor came out easily. But the surgery proved to be only the beginning of Young’s battle.
From October to December 2004, she underwent 33 radiation treatments, at a staggering pace of five treatments per week.
“Most of the adults there were doing it two or three times a week, not five times,” Young says. “What I was doing was so intense. I would be constantly throwing up. I remember being so excited when I threw up [only] nine times one day.”
Swallowing became painful, and Young couldn’t keep food down. The scar tissue leftover from her surgery, combined with the radiation, caused her esophagus to close.
“That’s when I stopped eating,” she says. Young has since been on a liquid diet. “Everything I did, it was completely unexpected. They thought I’d fare better.”
Despite its unanticipated side effects, the radiation seemed to have worked. The past four years have been spent in and out of hospitals, trying unsuccessfully to get her throat to reopen, trying to get back to normal.
“I just wanted to live my life, not be confined to a hospital room,” she says.
At the beginning of Young’s freshman year of college, doctors removed what they thought was a benign mass.
“They said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing,’” she says. “I had scans in August of [last] year, and they told me they were fine and after the next set of scans I wouldn’t have to come back every couple months, just six months or a year. I thought I was in the clear, other than a lump that wouldn’t go away.”
That lump in her neck turned out to be another tumor, right where the last one was. The cancer had spread to her lungs, too. They tried chemo this time, instead of radiation, but gave up after the initial round did nothing to stop the tumor’s growth.
“We just decided we were going to be done with most everything and focus on living life and being here and with my boyfriend,” Young says, although she is going to test a trial drug in the next few months. “Best scenario, it will give me couple more months. This kind of cancer, it’s immune to anything. So it will become immune to any new drugs we try.”
She hasn’t eaten solid food for four years. She’s been too weak to hold her own head up. She’s endured surgeries and shots, IVs, scans, disappointed hopes, bad news. Endless hours spent awake at night, too sick to sleep.
For all that, Young survives, and strives to thrive. She misses Subway, her favorite food, and the strength to be as active as she was before the cancer. She misses singing, although, with typical defiance, she learned to play guitar when surgery ruined her voice. “I can still play, and I can play loud enough that no one can hear me singing,” she says.
For now, Young will be kept busy with the everyday stuff of living, and spending time with her fiancé and family.
“I’m familiar with nature and the cycle of life,” she says. “In this case, it’s a little out of sync. My mom’s a wreck sometimes. As a parent, how do you tell your friend, ‘Yeah, my daughter’s dying’? That’s the hardest thing for me.”
Her sickness has forced self-awareness, an uneasy analysis of the role she’s played in her family.
“I’m the one who always has these big things going on,” she says. “The last few years we’ve been dealing with the hospital. It would be so weird not to ever deal with it again.”
Though grateful for the encouragement she has received at Corban, Young’s concern has shifted from herself to her family.
“I want you to pray for my family,” Young says. “If people pray for my healing, you know, that’s natural, but as Christians we have to be careful about that. I have faith, and I know he can heal me if he wants, but it may be his will for me to die. Some people think, ‘You’ve been a good person, God’s going to heal you.’ You read about Paul with a thorn in his side, but God kept it there for a reason. I don’t really have a right to complain. I’m not sending my only son to die on a cross – that would be worse than dying.”
That determination to not to feel sorry for herself also contributes to her desire not to waste the time she has.
“I’ve never been a procrastinator and I’ve always kept myself busy but it’s hard to watch other people pass up opportunities, even if it’s just a job they’re not giving 100 percent. You only have so long to give all you can.”
Young knows too well the shortness of life; but it’s her faith that lets her accept it, unafraid of afterlife.
“I want God’s will,” Young says. “If God wants me to die and go home, it’s about time. I’m ready.”
But the task, for now, is to live, and to find that perfect wedding dress.