For years, Shelly Brooks went camping every summer with her mom, aunts and female cousins.
These trips hold great memories for Brooks, 58, a former kindergarten teacher and swimming instructor whose life inclines to activities like kayaking, boating and snowshoeing.
If her camping girls were there in the best of times, she knew they would show up for the hard times, too.
Facing an uphill battle with advanced stage cervical cancer, Brooks invited the group to join her last spring at a 5K walk to raise funds for the Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center, a facility close to her heart and not far from her home among the trees and waters of Canadian Lakes, Michigan.
The 5K walk is part of the Wheatlake Festival of Races, a series of 5K and 10K events held in Big Rapids each May to benefit the Susan P. Wheatlake Cancer and Wellness Fund, an endowment of the Spectrum Health Foundation at Big Rapids and Reed City Hospitals.
At this year’s Wheatlake Festival of Races—May 18—Brooks hopes to nearly double the size of her circle of family and friends who form Team Brooks.
“My goal is to get 24 women this time,” she said. “Some do the run and the walk and most of us just do the walk. I have little swag bags I’m making for the group. … It’ll be a good time and I’m hoping we can raise a lot more money this year.”
She also hopes to be able to walk more of the course than she did last year, when—depleted after months of harsh cancer treatments and taxing complications—she finished the route in a double jogging stroller.
“They pushed me—me and my great nephew—for about half the race, but I did walk across the finish line,” she said.
“I said, ‘I’m going to do this if it’s the last thing I do with my family.’”
This spring, Brooks finds herself in a similar place: She and her doctors aren’t sure how much time she has left.
Advanced stage cervical cancer behaves aggressively and “is generally very difficult to treat,” said her primary oncologist, Mae Zakhour, MD, a Spectrum Health obstetrician and gynecologist who specializes in gynecologic oncology.
“She’s had a fairly complicated course,” with significant side effects from her treatments, Dr. Zakhour said.
Brooks’ treatments began in fall 2017 with chemotherapy and radiation.
Paul Thieme, DO, a radiation oncologist at the regional cancer center in Reed City, managed her treatments in collaboration with Dr. Zakhour.
“One of the big strengths of Spectrum is that we have a lot of outreach places where we can treat patients,” Dr. Zakhour said. “And Reed City’s a great one for a lot of our patients because we’re communicating directly with their staff and we still have control over their treatment plan.”
The cancer center has been a godsend, Brooks said, not only because it’s close to home but also because of the services and resources it offers.
“It’s a great place, it really is. … The doctors were fabulous, the nursing staff, everybody—I loved it there,” she said.
The facility’s Wellness Center “helped me greatly,” Brooks said, mentioning its massage and acupuncture services, wellness classes, library and hair salon, which fits patients with wigs.
These services, along with gas cards and meals for patients receiving infusions, are provided at no cost, thanks to the community-supported cancer and wellness fund.
Her positive experiences with the cancer center motivate her to participate in the Festival of Races, said Brooks, an advocate for early detection.
“My goal is to raise money to help other cancer patients,” Brooks said. “I want to do as much as I can to help.”
Two days before the cancer walk last May, Brooks received the shattering news that her cancer continued to grow, despite six months of intensive therapies.
In fact, she would soon need surgery at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital to relieve the pressure the tumor had placed on one of her kidneys.
Her best bet for beating the cancer would be participating in a research trial with drugs under development, Dr. Zakhour advised.
In June 2018, Brooks signed on to a clinical trial at a Grand Rapids infusion center.
Initial results looked good, she said, but when complications from the trial drug landed her in the hospital twice in December, doctors pulled her from the study.
In January, she started a second clinical trial.
Only time will tell how effective the new drug will be.
But Brooks remains hopeful.
“I got off the first trial treatment and the cancer was looking good, (but) when I did a scan before the new trial, the cancer had grown quite a bit, so it grows when I’m not on any treatment,” she said.
“If I stay stable, that’s about all I can hope for. I will more than likely die of cancer—but we’re working on that now.”
In the meantime, Brooks is determined to check items off her bucket list.
She completed the first item in November: a trip to New York City with her sister. They had a blast.
In January, just home from the hospital, she checked off item No. 2: a dogsledding adventure. Knowing she couldn’t manage a trip to Alaska, Brooks and her husband, Dave, booked a 10-mile dogsledding trail ride with friends in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The experience was everything she’d hoped for.
“All you could hear was the (sound) of the dogs’ paws,” she said, recalling how she huddled under blankets in the sled. “It was just so peaceful. It was wonderful.”
Watching Brooks focus on her goals and push through difficulties inspires her, Dr. Zakhour said.
“That’s definitely a big lesson from Shelly—do the things you want to do when you can,” she said. “I think that she’s just trying to live life to the fullest at this point. … I’m really proud of her.”
Completing the 5K is the next big thing on Brooks’ list.
After that? Maybe a summer sailboat excursion.
It’s worth dreaming about.
“If I didn’t stay positive and keep going—if I would just give up and say, ‘There’s no help, no hope, I don’t want to do this treatment’—I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
Brooks knows the fight isn’t just for her own life. She’s in it for future patients, too.
“I want to be a part of finding better treatments for cancer, or even finding cures,” she said. “That’s why I’m doing the clinical trial work, is to hopefully help other people.”