Family Comes First

Shelly and her family

Shelly and her family

By Shelly Engfer-Triebenbach

This Mother’s Day is a very special day for me. It reminds me of how fortunate I am to not only be a mother to my two beautiful children but also to be able to offer them the best version of myself.

I was diagnosed with stage IV adenocarcinoma on June 11, 2013. At that time, my daughter Kadyn was 10 years old and my son Chase was seven. Because I had six blood clots on my lungs, I was kept in the hospital for a full week while they ran a barrage of tests leading up to my diagnosis.  My kids could tell something wasn’t right. I was and remain very open and honest with them about my disease, answering any questions they have.

After finding out I have the ALK mutation, I started on Crizotinib, nine months later after progression I enrolled in a clinical trial for Brigatinib.  I have been stable on Brigatinib for 16 months.

My lung cancer affected Kadyn and Chase in different ways and at different times in the process. Chase was really bothered when my hair fell out about two weeks after starting chemotherapy. ‘When will it grow back?’ and ‘Are you going to wear a wig?’ were very common questions from him. He didn’t and still doesn’t comprehend the seriousness of my disease.

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Shelly, Kadyn and Chase

My daughter didn’t fully understand the diagnosis at first, but she knew that it was serious because of all the changes.  One major change was my job.   I am a vocal music teacher by trade. When I started chemotherapy treatment I decided to not teach in fear of catching something from the students since my immune system was already compromised.

Kadyn dealt with my diagnosis by taking action and learning about lung cancer. Now in 7th grade, she expanded her knowledge of lung cancer in a presentation she did for FCCLA (Family, Career, Community Leaders of America) titled ‘Got Lungs?’  She focused on the unbelievable facts about this awful disease and the disparity of funding.  Her main focus was ‘all you need are lungs to get lung cancer.’  She received an almost perfect score on both a regional and state level! I am so proud of her for having the courage to share her story publicly.

This past fall I went back teaching part time.  Not only did I miss the students, but I also missed the professional community and collegial friendships.  I feel so blessed to be feeling well enough to be back in the classroom part-time.

Lung cancer has definitely changed my life, some for the worse (obviously) and some for the better.  I have different priorities in my life now.  I no longer take time and events for granted.

Before diagnosis I frequently would be double booked with my professional obligations and my kids’ activities.  No more!  My family comes first.  Reflecting on everything that has happened, it is sad that it took getting this horrific disease for me to get my priorities straight.

As a mother you are always thinking of your children first – their well-being, happiness and feelings. I was determined to stay strong and never give up for them. Witnessing their courage throughout the process gave me a strength I didn’t realize I processed.

For this Mother’s Day, my advice to anyone (especially the moms) surviving lung cancer is always be your own advocate, put family first and if you cannot find strength in yourself, do it for those who love you. I have my children to thank for reminding me of these important things and for keeping me present in this moment.