By David Schriemer, MD
You don’t have to go far to find courage. Sometimes you are near it but never know it. People we meet every day have stories of great perseverance and courage. Kristi Shoemaker is one such person.
Kristi was raised in Schoolcraft, the third child of Merl and Marilyn Highland. She graduated from Schoolcraft High School in 1979. She was a cheerleader and class secretary. She was married to Fred Bean shortly after high school. Their son Fred was born in 1984; daughter Marilyn in 1989.
She recalls Dr.Gibson, her family doctor in Schoolcraft, telling her he “didn’t like the looks” of a couple moles on her back and wanted her to see a dermatologist. She was busy with life so she ignored the advice.
In 1995, a mole on her back got bigger and was itching. She saw a dermatologist who immediately made the diagnosis of malignant melanoma and arranged for her to have a wide excision of the melanoma done. She did, and thought that was the end of it.
In 1998, she felt something in her right armpit. Two physicians could not feel it. She consulted a third who did a CT of the area which showed a mass. The mass was removed. It was metastatic melanoma (melanoma that had spread). This was very bad news.
Her oncologist arranged for her to get the standard chemotherapy for metastatic melanoma. Only minutes into her first treatment she had a life threatening allergic reaction to the medication (anaphylaxis). With a quick response of the chemotherapy team she survived unscathed. But now what was to be done with her cancer? Her oncologist considered radiation and alternative chemotherapy, but at the time there didn’t seem to be any good options.
In 1999, there was concern for more cancer in her right armpit. Surgery was done to remove six lymph nodes. All were negative for cancer. She thought, “I’m done”. (The cancer is gone.)
Her marriage ended that same year and she went to school to become a dental assistant. She was making a new life for herself and her teenage children. She had great enjoyment and renewed self-esteem working for Dr.Hosner and then Dr.Grabowski.
In 2001, however, a mass was noted in her right upper chest. Melanoma had returned. Surgery to remove it was not successful. The surgeon could not remove it all. Her oncologist thought that, most likely, the cancer had spread to her liver, too. “I was told to get my affairs in order… I wasn’t having it. I got mad at it (cancer). This is not going to beat me.” She adds, “My dad said I was stubborn since the day I was born.” She bargained with God, wanting to see both of her children graduate from high school.
Her surgeon contacted her after a few months. He thought maybe he could remove the residual cancer from the chest wall but she might lose her right collar bone and right arm in the process. “I was told to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” Surgery did successfully remove all the residual cancer and her arm was preserved. Unfortunately, it left her right arm chronically swollen and painful. She could no longer work as a dental assistant. That was a huge blow. “I cried terribly.”
As far as she knew the cancer was gone but she feared it would return. That caused her to realign her priorities and learn to slow down. She invested herself in her relationship with her children and family. “I don’t hesitate to call” (my family and friends).“ I felt so blessed to watch my daughter graduate from high school and in April she will walk across the Western Michigan University stage to receive her diploma and my son from the University of Michigan law school.”
The fear of recurrent cancer made her hesitate to commit to marriage again. But when her future husband, Jay Shoemaker, assured her he wanted to marry her no matter what her future health was, she agreed. They were married in May 2007. This pleased her father, Merl, so much. He knew he could rely on Jay to take care of her. Merl died in 2008.
Kristi has not had any cancer recurrence since 2002. She had a scare in 2004 when cancer was suspected in her ovary, but surgery revealed no cancer. She reports, “I never take anything for granted. I thank God every morning and at night when I say my prayers. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m still here.”
She attributes her good health to the happiness she has found with her husband, Jay. She still deals with chronic swelling in her right arm and with chronic pain but states, “You can’t feel sorry for yourself.” She has chosen to be grateful.
Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure.” Kristi Shoemaker embodies that definition.