In 2017, at just 36 years old, Shelly Vaughn learned she had breast cancer. Although she knew she was at higher risk of developing it since her mother was diagnosed with the disease just 3 years earlier, she said the news still felt unexpected and disorienting.
“I went through the motions and heard the words but couldn’t process that it was actually happening to me,” she said. “It was definitely surreal that I had been walking from Akron Children’s to Akron General to work in the NICU as a feeding therapist for years, then suddenly I was walking there for my own chemotherapy instead.”
Shelly, who now works as a speech pathology supervisor, said the immense support she received from her friends and colleagues allowed her to continue to work during treatments which included chemo, radiation, a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction.
After her diagnosis, she created a private Facebook group to share health updates with family and friends.
“The group evolved from me sharing medical information to me journaling as a way to process my feelings through the experience,” she said. “People started encouraging me to share with a wider audience as a way to help more people, so my husband helped me create a website to write a blog.”
After passing her 5-year anniversary from treatment, she started to consider how she could share her insights with others more widely and decided to write a book.
“The first goal of writing the book was to put our family’s story together,” she said. “I wanted my daughters (who were 9 and 7 when I was diagnosed) to have something tangible that captures our story and that they could share with their children. There’s already so much that they don’t remember, and I think it shaped all of us so it’s important to know.”
Shelly’s second goal was to create a resource for anyone facing cancer treatment.
“When I was first diagnosed, I couldn’t find any books about women my age going through this. It felt very lonely in treatment centers and appointments because everyone seemed so much older than me,” she said.
Shelly couldn’t find anyone who could relate to things she was needing advice about like whether she should wear a wig around her kids’ friends or how to talk to preteen girls about body image when she was struggling with her own changing so much. Eventually she connected with the mother of a girl in her daughter’s class who had been through cancer treatment.
“Talking with her was a lifesaver. Feeling like someone else in the world understood my fears, concerns and challenges was invaluable,” she said. “I sincerely hope that if there are other women needing support, insight, or to simply not feel alone, this could be a resource for them as well.”
Today, Shelly’s health is good. She ran her first marathon in Chicago last October. In June, her book, Scars in the Sunlight: Reflections After a Disorienting Diagnosis, was published. In addition to her own personal reflections, she shares ways people can help friends or loved ones going through treatment.
“My support system has been nothing short of outstanding,” she said. “Friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances provided encouragement, gifts, food, flowers, childcare, PTO and lots of hugs to get me through the hardest days.”
She hopes her book helps those going through cancer feel less alone.
“I want people facing breast cancer to know I’m here if they ever need a listening ear. If someone they love is facing this disease, I can answer questions or give support from what I’ve learned,” she said.
“If they are believers in God, I hope they see how my faith stuck with me even when I was barely hanging on,” she added. “And most importantly, that they feel a sense of hope that they can get to the other side of treatment, too.”