Covington resident Shelby Stewart, daughter of Jodi and Scott Hendrickson, holds her cat, Peanut, who has been a source of comfort for the teen as she battles cancer. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)
On Shelby Stewart’s 15th birthday, instead of planning a party, the teenage girl’s family thought they might have to plan her funeral.
Doctors had diagnosed Shelby with stage three squamous cell carcinoma the day after her birthday on April 11, 2012. The aggressive and rare cancer had appeared only two months before as a white dot on her tongue.
On May 9, surgeons performed a 15-hour operation during which they removed Shelby’s tongue, 52 lymph nodes and her left tonsil, and determined the cancer had progressed to stage four.
The procedure required doctors to make an incision from ear to ear, and break Shelby’s jaw. They also removed part of the muscle and skin from her thigh to make a “flap” for her mouth, to replace her tongue.
Doctors didn’t expect Shelby to live, said her mother Jodi Hendrickson.
“They talked to us and said we don’t think she’s going to make it through the night. Her body had been through so much,” she said.
Three days after the operation, Shelby surprised everyone. Not only did she survive, but she also insisted on walking and uttered a few words.
“I’ve been amazed at how her strength has been,” said Hendrickson.
While Shelby’s surgeries (which have included stomach feeding tube procedures) have taken place at Emory University Hospital, her oncologist is based at Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Shelby received chemotherapy there and has been treated for pneumonia three times at the hospital since her surgery.
Shelby and her mother have spent the majority of their time in the hospital since her surgery.
“They’ve been our Godsend,” said Hendrickson of Children’s Healthcare. “Shelby’s felt like it’s been a home away from home.”
A Covington resident, Shelby will share the story of her battle with cancer during the 13th annual WSB Care-a-Thon, a live broadcast for 37 hours on July 25 and 26 on 95.5 FM and AM 750 News/Talk WSB. An event designed to raise money for the Aflac Cancer Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Care-a-Thon features interviews with patients and their families from across the Atlanta metro area.
Listeners can tune in and make donations by calling 888-750-2772 or visiting www.choa.org/careathon.
Described as a strong-willed individual by her mother, Shelby has defied doctors’ predictions in her recovery.
After surgery, they tried to induce a month-long coma, but Shelby fought it and ended up staying in the hospital for recovery from the surgery for only 12 days.
Because the “flap” that is in Shelby’s mouth is non-operational tissue and skin, she’s had to relearn how to swallow, eat, drink and talk.
She taught herself how to swallow by swishing Sprite around in her mouth and tilting her head back to let the liquid run down her throat.
Shelby is slowly progressing from pureed food to solid food, and her mother expects the feeding tube to come out well before the two years that doctors expected it might have to be in.
Shelby also taught herself how to talk, and can communicate well with her family. She’ll improve her speaking skills with assistance from a speech therapist in the near future, said her mother.
The now 16-year-old has also experienced setbacks. She’s developed pneumonia three times due to acid reflux that she has swallowed at night. She also struggled with reactions to the chemotherapy and other medications.
Her hearing has also diminished and she’s lately been experiencing bouts of unexplained blindness.
Despite the struggles, Shelby, a home school student with strong interests in art and photography, said she takes it in stride.
“I have too much going on to be sick,” she said.
Shelby said she is stronger for having experienced the trauma of the cancer, and that she feels closer to God.
“I definitely have more of a spiritual connection since I’ve been through this,” said Shelby.
Doctors are unsure of her prognosis. Statistics show only 32 documented cases of tongue cancer in children, said her mother.
“This is all new to them,” said Hendrickson.
Shelby said that the most important advice she’d give other children living with cancer is to remain positive.
“Attitude is everything,” she said.