Becky Shields remembers hearing the doctor deliver the news: “It’s cancer.”
“Those words shook me to my core,” said the 22-year-old Brock University Medical Sciences student. “You associate that word with the question of ‘am I going to live or am I going to die?’”
Shields was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, which started as a tumour within her uterus. The disease is so rare, there are only 60 documented cases.
“My oncologist said they’ve never seen it in someone my age,” said Shields from her home in Oshawa. “My cancer is rare for someone my age, but even more scarce because only 20 of those 60 cases found this cancer in the uterus.”
Shields was slated to take part in Spring Convocation and graduate from the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences this week, but her last semester was derailed following her diagnosis with multiple invasive cancer surgeries and a hysterectomy.
This past January, she received a year-long treatment plan from Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, which includes 14 rounds of chemotherapy and 25 sessions of radiation.
It’s a stark contrast to her life just a few months ago.
Shields’ aspiration to become a health-care professional led her to become a standout student in Brock’s Medical Sciences and Med Plus programs, the latter a competitive experiential offering designed for students interested in pursuing a career in health care.
She juggled full-time studies while volunteering on and off campus while mentoring younger students and participating in the social aspects of university life.
With graduation in sight, Shields celebrated her acceptance into the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto right before becoming severely ill.
When Shields was diagnosed with cancer, the entire Med Plus family jumped into action by collecting donations for a chemotherapy wig, sending gifts and creating a video of well-wishes to make sure she felt loved.
“Med Plus has been incredible, and my professors have been so accommodating and very understanding,” said Shields. “They’ve been patient with me, which I’ve appreciated.”
She is currently working toward her final two classes and is slated to graduate from Brock in October.
“Becky is an incredible human being. She continues to inspire each of us with her resiliency and patient care advocacy,” said Med Plus Advisor Pam Isaak. “Her honesty and authenticity helped all of us understand the deeper issues involved in patient care and advocacy.”
This past winter, Shields bravely led a Med Plus session about living with a chronic illness. It was the first time the program had a senior student lead a session about a personal topic with their peers.
For almost a decade, Shields has lived with a rare autoimmune disease, myasthenia gravis (MG), which causes abnormal weakness of voluntary muscles such as a lazy eye and trouble chewing, swallowing, breathing and speaking.
Her required medication at times means taking as many as 17 pills a day, and she also underwent thymectomy surgery.
Shields’ situation was so unique that she was invited to conduct a TED Talk, where she grappled with the definition of ‘normal’ in the way she functions in society.
She says her condition has hindered her energy, lampooned her social life, but never dampened her motivation.
Shields has documented the peaks and valleys of her journey through her YouTube and social media channels. Her in-depth posts carry titles such as ‘Losing my hair at 21’ and ‘What’s in my bag: what I take with me to chemotherapy.’
Discussing her cancer on public platforms began as a form of therapy and has since turned into a way to help others.
Shields has received messages about how her story has helped people struggling with depression, chemotherapy treatments and even others diagnosed with the same rare cancer.
“I want to bring a positive outlook and attitude despite everything I’m facing,” she said. “I’ve received messages from people who told me how scared they were after their diagnosis and that they found some comfort in my story — that they weren’t alone.”
Shields draws a lot of her strength from memories of her grandfather and the way he approached life after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“I called him Papa Bill, and he passed away 12 years ago. I watched him go through his battle with cancer, and even though he’s been gone for so long, I still feel him with me,” said Shields. “Whenever I’m feeling down, I think back to how he handled his cancer journey. How he always had a smile on his face even though he was in pain.”
Shields’ ultimate goal is to own and run a medical clinic for oncology and autoimmune diseases.
“In the future, when I do become a health-care professional, I want my patients to feel like they’re heard because I’ve felt frustrated and that doctors aren’t listening to me,” said Shields. “My focus would be to help those patients thrive.”
Brock and the Med Plus family continue to send their love and support to Shields, whose family and friends have set up a gofundme page in her name.