“I will be a miracle.”
In Kenya, Africa, in July 2009, Shearlean Duke had what later proved to be seizures caused by a glioblastoma brain tumor. This was her second year in Kenya as Western Washington University’s faculty escorting Western students to Africa to work with Kenyan high school girls orphaned by AIDS.
Seizures began when she awoke on August 3, 2009, at a Maasai Mara safari camp. The pain from that first episode subsided quickly and Shearlean decided to carry on with our sightseeing, but shortly she had more attacks, up to 15 within 10 hours.
As soon as she returned to the U.S., an MRI showed a glioblastoma brain tumor. She was told she might survive one to two years.
Here are Shearlean’s own words:
“When my doctor told me I had a brain tumor, that it was brain cancer, and that I may be dead in a year, I went home, cried for two days, bought books on dying and put my affairs in order. “
The night of Shearlean’s diagnosis she sat up past 1:30 a.m. watching consecutive reruns of “Cheers” and writing in her journal about what she titled: The Most Important Day of My Life.
“I am in shock. I am angry. I am terrified. I am profoundly sad. I am confused.
It just is not fair.
So many decisions to make. Part of me wishes I did not know. That I just had treatment for my symptoms and did not know.
What can I do?
Feel the pain and fear.”
Shearlean immediately applied for treatment at University of Washington Medicine ’s (UW Medicine) Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Center in Seattle, Washington. Fearing she might not qualify as a surgery candidate with UW Medicine’s tumor board, she wrote the following heart breaking plea calculated to gain agreement to treat her.
“Dear University Tumor Board:
Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009, following my brain tumor diagnosis, I awoke, dry-eyed and with a fierce determination to do everything in my power to prolong my life. I believe a patient is more than a chart, a diagnosis and an MRI report. I am a unique individual who has overcome great obstacles, beat tremendous odds, and accomplished the impossible.
So, this is not my ego, but my heart trying to offer you evidence of my drive and determination to continue to meet challenges—even this, the most terrifying challenge I have faced in my 63 years. This is my way to help you see me as more than the medical charts you have before you in the meeting you are having today that may decide my fate.
I got to where I am by doing the impossible, and beating the odds in my life. So, even though these new life-and-death odds are terrifying, to me they are not impossible.
I grew up in Appalachia. My father was a copper miner and my mother worked at the Levi’s factory. Neither finished high school. But I learned the values of education, self-reliance, hard work, positive thinking and self-determination. Such determination has helped me accomplish the impossible. Examples:
- As a 22-year-old college graduate from an unknown state university in Tennessee, my dream was to work at the Los Angeles Times. At age 24, I applied with just two years experience. Impossible. Getting hired at the Times took a minimum of five years, a prestigious degree and connections. I never had a chance. The Times hired me.
- As a mid-life Times newspaper editor, I wanted to teach journalism. Never, people said. Not when I had only a bachelor’s degree. The University of California hired me. I was the only non-Ph.D. in my department.
- At 50 while still working full time, I decided to earn a master’s so I could become a full-time tenured professor in journalism. Impossible. I was too old. No one would hire me without a Ph.D. Today, I am a tenured associate professor and chair of the Journalism Department at Western Washington University. In fact, until I got this news I was busy preparing to apply for full professor.
I am healthy, active, have lots of stamina, a positive outlook on life. In short, I have never had serious health problems, which is why this diagnosis came as a shock. My first symptoms occurred Aug. 3, 2009, while I was in Kenya as part of a faculty group that took students to help work with high school girls orphaned by AIDS.
So this is who I am and where I am. I have a wonderful life, and if I die tomorrow, I have no regrets.
Please understand that I am not in denial of this diagnosis, but based on lifetime experience, I see it as a challenge. And I would like your help in meeting it.
Shearlean never explained her fear of rejection by the tumor board, but she was immediately scheduled for surgery for September 10. Other of Shearlean’s words and her whole story are in the book written by her husband and caregiver, Robert Duke, titled Waking Up Dying: Caregiving When There Is No Tomorrow, by Good Enough Publishing, and available from Chris Elliott Fund (CEF), Amazon or the author at robertaduke.com.
On the day of the surgery, Robert was able to stay with her until she went into the operating room. She was in surgery for more than four hours while they mapped her brain to identify the areas that control movements, sensations and speech. A surgical mistake in the movement area could paralyze her right side (left brain controls right body), a mistake in the sensation area (our five senses) could result in bizarre convulsions, or in the speech area, could eliminate her ability to speak, understand speech and write. Since a glioma tumor grows integrally with the brain, removing the tumor removes a portion of the brain.
The good news from the surgery was that it removed 98 percent of the tumor and Shearlean lost only a little verbal ability, seizures were minor and there were small difficulties using her right hand. The bad news was that the tumor had doubled in size in the three weeks between the diagnostic MRI and surgery.
Shearlean was discharged from the hospital on September 14 just four days after a craniotomy.
The post-op biopsy confirmed the tumor to be a glioblastoma stage IV‚ the worst of the worst. Shearlean had been told she might have 12 months to live if she chose to follow surgery with six weeks of radiation therapy combined with ongoing chemotherapy. That said, the doctors reminded her there has never been anyone like her or a tumor like hers and so she might do a lot better than the 12 months average. Shearlean was determined to beat the odds and she was strong and capable of overcoming even the greatest obstacles.
By choosing surgery immediately and following up with radiation combined with ongoing chemotherapy, Shearlean was convinced she could look forward to some very good times and being able to get the most and best out of her remaining time. She had met Robert in 1968 and had shared a terrific life. They planned to go on sharing every minute of every remaining day.
Shearlean and Robert continued laughing, having fun and making plans for new adventures and good times. They agreed cancer was just another of life’s big adventures like so many other adventures they shared and thrived on.
As she woke up stricken in Kenya, so she woke up in bed at home dying suddenly at 5:30 a.m. February 2, 2011.