It’s been over 9 ½ years now since Cheryl Stevens was diagnosed with stage two triple negative breast cancer.
Like many cancer patients who hear the words “you’ve been diagnosed with cancer”, Cheryl was devastated when she first learned of her diagnosis.
But Cheryl was able to turn her journey with cancer into something positive and not just for herself, but for many other cancer patients.
Though Cheryl is now cancer free, her journey with cancer goes on, as she now continues to come back to the chemo room to share what helped her get through her treatment with current cancer patients.
The Diagnosis – Stage 2 Triple Negative Breast Cancer
When Cheryl first told her mother the news of her diagnosis, her mother replied, “This is going to be bigger than you.” And her mother was right, but it didn’t feel like that initially to Cheryl, whose journey with breast cancer was just beginning.
Diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, Cheryl soon learned that her cancer tended to be more aggressive to treat and it was also more likely to spread to other areas beyond the breast.
Cheryl elected to have a double mastectomy, rather than a lumpectomy. Following this surgery, she was told that she would go through about 6 months of chemotherapy treatment, which would consist of 16 cycles of chemotherapy administered every two weeks. The course of her chemo regime would include Adramycin, Cytoxan and Taxatore.
Getting Through Cancer Treatment
When Cheryl first began her cancer treatment, she remembers having an overwhelming fear of the “unknown”, especially when it came to her chemotherapy treatment.
Walking into the chemo room for the first time seemed daunting. How was the chemo going to affect her body? And how was it going to affect her work or how she lived?
Not only was Cheryl working full-time, she was also studying for her MBA and teaching at a community college! How was this all going to play out?
Cheryl decided to treat her new cancer experience like a science experiment. “I didn’t know what to expect, so I kind of watched for the signs as to how the treatment affected my body and what would go from there.”
As she was working her way through this experiment, Cheryl found it helpful to talk to other cancer patients who were going through chemotherapy in the chemo room. “You get a camaraderie going on and make some dear friendships that way,“ she says.
As she began going through her initial chemo cycles, Cheryl learned more about how her body was responding to the chemotherapy. “I would be super high for about 24 hours because of a steroid medication I used to help for nausea and then I’d crash,” she recalls.
But Cheryl was somehow still able to continue working during her treatment. “I would take my Wednesday off for treatment and by Friday afternoon I would have to take off early and go home to bed. And then I’d start feeling crappy for the weekend. And then, about the week before the next treatment, I’d start feeling better again…and it’d be time to do it all again.’
Turning Chemotherapy into a Party
Shortly before her second cycle of chemo, Cheryl was given a hat shower by her family, friends and co-workers. “I got some really nice, beautiful hats,” recalls Cheryl. “And the best one was my Viking cap,” she says.
Cheryl found that dressing up in costumes not only brightened her own journey with cancer, it
also helped put a smile on many of her fellow cancer patients. “Humor has always been my defense, so taking an awful situation and laughing about it, made it better,” she says.
Soon some of Cheryl’s co-workers began helping her develop costumes to wear and also started coming
And the parties and themes would change. One day it was a luau celebration, where Cheryl and friends would hand out leis. On another celebration, Cheryl dressed up as a biker babe, complete with a
whiskey bottle full of ice tea.
Dressing up, sharing some laughs and turning the chemo room into a monthly celebration not
only raised Cheryl’s spirits, but it brought a big smile to many of the other patients in the chemo
Flamingos for Hope
When Cheryl completed her breast cancer treatment, and she was cancer free, she didn’t want to stop the “party”, so she started coming back to the chemo room once a month.
At first, Cheryl started coming by herself and then with friends, bringing different themed costumes and handing out tokens and cookies.
As word got out of Cheryl’s monthly chemo room visits, she was referred to Harper’s Hope as a possible resource that could fund her activities of goodwill.
The idea for flamingos may have actually started during one of Cheryl’s treatments, when she came to the chemo room and started handing out flamingo hats.
So what does “Flamingos stands for? “Friends laughing, achieving miracles, inspiring and nurturing gifts, offering smiles,” says Cheryl.
Since Flamingos for Hope began in 2008, the group has been able to reach over 200 cancer patients per month. And many of the impressions they make are long remembered by the patients they meet.
“I always love the stories that patients have when you see them again,” says Cheryl. “One month we handed out crowns and mini swords and the theme was ‘Slay your Dragon,” she recalls. “One woman wanted the purple crown, and when I saw her the following month, she said that she put the crown on her bookshelf so that she could see it every day.”
“You just know you’ve touched them and it’s something they can think about as a happy moment of time, versus worrying about the negative,” explains Cheryl.
The basis of spreading good cheer probably came about through Cheryl’s first visits to the chemo room, when she began her treatment and noticed that other cancer patients would come to the room alone. “I guess that touched my heart and that’s why I’m so passionate about giving people that chance to have a warm, fuzzy during their treatment,” she says.
“What is really cool is how the atmosphere changes when we show up,” says Cheryl. “It’s fairly
quiet and then pretty soon we’re handing out our goodies and people are talking to each other. It’s magical.”
Cancer Helped me Prioritize My Life
“Cancer slowed me down and helped me prioritize,” says Cheryl. “I was working on my MBA, working full-time at the bank and I was an adjunct teaching instructor at Metro Community College. And when I was diagnosed, I just stopped everything and focused on me and taking care of me.”
After her treatment, Cheryl did go back to complete her MBA. She also taught for one more year but decided she was too busy. She continues to work full-time as an accountant for First National Bank in Omaha and keeps up with her 5 grand kids’ activities. “It’s Flamingos, work and grandkids,” she says. “My life is full, but it’s a completeness that I have.”
“If I hadn’t had cancer, I would not be the person I am today,” Cheryl points out. “I take things
much easier and I don’t worry like I used to. And nothing is as bad as you think it is. I tell
people it can always be worse,” explains Cheryl. And she’s right.
At the end of the day, it’s still about helping others, and having fun along the way, that gives meaning to Cheryl’s life. “I’m passionate about helping other people, giving a hand and helping somebody up, but, to have fun along the way. Life is way too short. I have lost friends to the disease and people that I’ve met along the way. And they are the ones that keep me encouraged. It’s like they’re still with me.”
Cheryl says that the intention of the Flamingos for Hope is “to touch the lives of those affected by cancer through inspiration, laughter and fun.’ And so far, that’s exactly what she and her fellow Flamingos are doing.
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