Despite surviving three bouts with cancer, Morgantown resident Shirely Reed has an infectiously peaceful, serene disposition when she talks about cancer or mortality.
Her quiet, compassionate attitude is what makes others so drawn to her.
In the midst of her health struggles — and today you’d never know she’s 77 — she learned about the healing power of connection and support of friends, and how love can be the best medicine.
Reed was first diagnosed with uterine cancer when she was 37 years old, a working mom raising six school-age kids.
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After a routine cervical cancer screening, the Stage 4 cancer was discovered in 1976, a time when there was no treatment, Reed said, other than surgery. Reed had the surgery and follow-up cancer screenings indicated that some cancer cells were still present.
Over time, however, the cells disappeared.
But the shock of the diagnosis was a lot to take in, despite her deep-seated belief that she would indeed recover.
“I thought I was OK,” she said. “My husband thought it was a death sentence, but I didn’t.”
Reed’s first husband, Raymond Liffick, who passed away from severe complications from diabetes in 1998, was the only person she told, and possibly because of his reaction, she decided not to tell anyone else.
“He planned my funeral and everything. I never thought I was going to die from it,” she said.
Keeping her secret added to her already heavy burdens. She was the sole breadwinner of the household, as Raymond had been disabled because of his medical condition.
I never wore sunglasses, or sunscreen … It starts when you’re a young kid.
“I never felt that I was dying,” she said. She had no symptoms of any kind. The only indication she had of the presence of cancer was the results of the pap smear.
“But you feel alone when you don’t tell anyone,” she said.
She knew she had to be strong for her husband and children, and didn’t want anyone to treat her any differently.
“I just wasn’t going to give in,” she said of the period between when she had the surgery and when the pap smears came back clear.
Everything remained that way for 33 years, until 2009 when, at age 70, she found a lump in her left breast.
“I was shocked. It didn’t worry me because I knew they’d helped a lot of people with it,” she said of the new diagnosis.
“I had a good doctor and he took out extra lymph nodes around it in case some of it got out around it. (My husband) Jim was good about it — that means a lot. When you’re a woman and you lose a breast, it’s a shock, but it didn’t upset me.”
Again, she had surgery, having a mastectomy of her left breast and 18 lymph nodes removed. But this time, chemo therapy was available and her doctors told her she needed it to make sure the cancer stayed gone.
But Reed, as a nursing tech, had her own ideas — she refused intravenous chemo. She knew the side effects and how miserable cancer patients seemed when they were in the midst of the treatments. Instead, she opted for oral drugs that had the same effect on the cancer.
“I’d seen so many who’d had intravenous (chemotherapy) who didn’t make it,” she said, referring to her days at the hospital. “I only saw the ones that were not going to make it, so to me, that was not the way to go.”
But perhaps the best medicine this time had nothing to do with doctors, hospitals or drugs. This time, Reed did something she didn’t do more than 30 years before: she confided to her friends and family what was going on. She told them she had cancer.
“I didn’t want them to think I was dying, because I wasn’t,” she said. “I wouldn’t give in. I knew I was going to be OK.”
One of her biggest supporters was her sister-in-law, Joyce Reed. Joyce is married to Clifford Reed, who is Jim’s brother.
Joyce and Clifford were living in Massachusetts, and Joyce sent a card to Shirley every week. The gesture made a world of difference.
Her face lights up when she remembers getting the cards in the mail.
“I looked forward to that every week,” she said.
Joyce Reed said to know Shirley is to love her. The two hit it off right away once they became sisters-in-law, and often went yard sale shopping together.
Joyce has a great eye for good finds at sales. She’s also a balanced person who makes her spirituality a central part of her life, she added.
While Shirley was ill, Joyce sent her a set of 10 little gifts — one for each day leading up to a medical procedure she was about to have during her bout with breast cancer.
Shirley opened all the boxes at once, Joyce remembered, enjoying the small trinkets such as Indiana-themed ornaments with race cars or decorated towels and candy.
“Cancer scares me,” Joyce said. “It’s a scary word for me — I was scared for her. But she always reassured everybody; she never cried about it. She just stood strong and knew that everything was going to turn out just fine.”
Her quiet fighting spirit, the support of her husband Jim and the involvement with the artistic community gave her the strength to beat cancer again. She is an artist who made and sold ceramics for many years.
She also gives credit to her healthy lifestyle — she and Jim love spending time outdoors hiking, and her spiritual beliefs, which she said have played a role in her healing. They are members of Franklin Christian Church.
But the potentially life-threatening breast and uterine cancer have not spread or returned to her body.
Then came a third bout with a different type of cancer. This time, skin cancer, which was found spreading on her face about two years ago.
“I never wore sunglasses, or sunscreen,” she said. “It starts when you’re a young kid.”
She still has spots periodically appear on her skin which she has frozen off every six months or so. Her children also have a type of melanoma and the family is reminded pretty repeatedly to wear sunscreen, sunglasses and hats when they’re outside.
She’s not worried about any of it though — she knows that she’s made it through so much, and she can handle anything that comes her way.
“If I get 33 years before the next time, I’ll be in my 90s,” she said.
Name: Shirley Reed
Dates diagnosed: Uterine cancer, 1976; breast cancer, 2009; recent years, melanoma
Family: Husband, Jim. Children: Michael, Rita, Angela, Douglas, Jennifer and the late Raymond Jr.; 15 grandchildren; 22 great-grandchildren.
What cancer taught me: “Not to give in.”
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer: “Do what your doctor says and don’t give up.”
How cancer changed me: “I knew I wasn’t going to give in.”