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January Survivor Spotlight - Shelley O’Malley

  • January 27 2017

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    January Survivor Spotlight - Shelley O’Malley

    My story started in August 2016, with a "lumpy feeling" in my throat. My doctor thought it was acid reflux, although I had no other symptoms. In November, I followed up with an ear/nose/throat specialist because the lumpy feeling hadn’t gone away and I’d developed a cough in October. He thought I had allergies or a throat virus and treated me for that.

    My cough continued but was very mild. In January 2016, I started having chest pain. My doctor wasn’t worried since I was young, otherwise healthy, and had never smoked. I demanded a chest x-ray, which came back with suspicious results, as did a CT scan.

    My husband and I drove to Mayo Clinic for further testing, and I was diagnosed with Stage IV NSCLG (non-small cell lung cancer) on February 16, 2016.  I have a tumor in my right lung that had metastases to my liver and multiple lymph nodes in my neck and chest. Dr. Eric Edell, who gave me my diagnosis, was amazing. I immediately asked him my chances of survival, and he wouldn’t let me go down that road. He said that if I wanted to look at statistics, I could, but it wouldn’t be promising. He told me that people do survive lung cancer, and there was no reason I couldn’t be part of that percentage.

    The night I was diagnosed, I called my dear friend and yoga instructor, Jen Pulvermacher, from my hotel room in Rochester, MN. Jen proved to be instrumental in helping me focus on my treatment. I recognized immediately that my diagnosis had a purpose – lung cancer would not be the end of my story. But I also knew with even more conviction that for me, a positive outcome would not be possible without treatment that encompassed my mind, body and spirit.

    That’s where Jen proved to be especially helpful. She was so tapped into the world of yoga and meditation that I knew she could help me with the challenges of lung cancer.

    I think my biggest challenge – and, ironically, my biggest success – is how I chose to treat my cancer. After completing five rounds of chemo, I decided not to move forward with the 6th round and to forgo maintenance chemo. I had tolerated chemo well, with no fatigue, hair loss, or nausea, but I did not want to continue down that path.

    I made significant changes to the way I eat, having switched to a plant-based whole-food diet. Basically, I eat lots of veggies, drink 2-3 freshly squeezed veggie juices daily, and eat whole foods in as natural a state as possible. I eliminated all refined or processed foods. This way of eating seems to work for me.

    I’m deathly afraid of water, so doing yoga on a paddle board without a life jacket was a huge step of faith. For me, it symbolized that I’ve made up my mind I can do anything as long as I don’t let fear be in charge.

    I’m basically the conductor of my own symphony and am very active in my treatment plan. We take a team approach to determining which therapies to use and my team includes many players with different roles, including emotional and physical strengthening. Past and current therapies include yoga, meditation, massage, and reiki. This approach takes time and money. Although these therapies are less expensive than chemo, they are not covered by insurance and raise our out of pocket cost significantly.

    Yoga, meditation and prayer are where I draw my strength. My hope comes from my faith. When you take time to find the quiet in the day, it’s much easier to feel the guiding force in your life and see the blessing of each day. Sure, I hope I live a long life, but I’ve come to terms that no one knows if they’re going to live a long life. I focus on the present and enjoy each day.

    I participated in the inaugural Free to Breathe yoga challenge in Madison, WI this year.  Our team, the Breath Savers, was led by Jen and included another yoga instructor and two other dear friends. We raised the highest amount as a team and I was the top individual fundraiser! This event was so monumental for me. Yoga was truly a lifesaver when I was first diagnosed, and to physically be able to participate in such an affirming event was a true blessing.

    I hope that my experience will help others see they have choices when diagnosed with a terminal illness. I look at how this cancer has affected my life and have come to terms with the fact that I can have a normal life – it is just a new normal. Instead of being a full-time mom, as I was until my youngest went off to college in September 2015, I’ve changed careers to being a full-time health care coordinator. The pay isn’t much, but the rewards are amazing.

    Many family and friends have sustained me through this past year, but without a doubt, my most constant and unwavering support comes from my husband, Jim. He has been and still is my biggest fan, lifting me even higher during the highs and pulling me up from the lows. We have a strong faith, and walking this journey side by side with God leading the path is where I draw my strength.

    My advice is don’t let anyone tell you how long you have to live. There’s only one person who knows the answer to that question, and it is not a doctor. Your mind is a very powerful thing. When I was first diagnosed and started meditating, someone asked me if I really believed it could help since it was all in my mind. I answered that I thought my mind was a pretty good place to start, because it controls the rest of my body. If my mind knows I can survive, then the rest of my body will follow along.

    It’s easy to live in fear, but fear is just the absence of faith. Take time to strengthen your mind and soul, and your body will follow. My other advice is: don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself and trust your intuition. This is your life and your disease, and you need to take an active role to fight for your life and treat your disease.



  1. Jennifer Olson 06:32pm, 02/01/2017

    Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. Mindset is so very important, and I am so impressed at how you maintain yours!
    Regards, Jennifer Olson (diagnosed April 2015 nsclc at age 44)

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