Facing cancer, Colbert misses the mayhem of kids and dogs
- Published: May 14, 2009
More than most of us, Shelley Colbert has spent her life caring for others. For the past 23 years she has cared for the youngest of villagers at her home. Mainly as a single parent, she raised two sons. And in recent years, her parents, who live in town, needed her attention in new ways.
None of this caring felt like an obligation, Colbert said in a recent interview.
“It’s just who I am,” she said with a shrug. “I like caring for things. Dogs, plants, children.”
But the tables have turned, and now Colbert is the one who needs care. Diagnosed several months ago with an aggressive cancer, she has been forced to close her child-care business as she begins chemotherapy. And because Colbert has no insurance, her worries about her health are compounded by concerns about money.
Several friends are hoping they can ease Colbert’s worries, at least the ones about finances. To raise funds, they are sponsoring the Shelley Colbert 5K Fun Run and Walk on Saturday, May 23, at 9 a.m. The 3.1 mile event will begin and end at the Bryan Center, and a picnic lunch will follow.
Half of the event proceeds will go to Colbert and half to the Susan G. Komen fund for breast cancer research. For information about registration, go online to shelleycolbert5k.com.or call 767-6611. Donations to Colbert may also be made at the US Bank in Yellow Springs.
For event organizer Jessica Goldner of Xenia, the mother of a 5-year-old, Colbert’s unique and caring approach to children touched her deeply, and motivated her to organize the fundraiser.
“My daughter fell in love with Shelley,” Goldner said. “I never had to worry when she was with her. Shelley engages with the children, gives them one-on-one attention and gets to know each one well. It makes parents feel comfortable.”
But being the recipient of other people’s caring isn’t always easy for a woman who prides herself on her independence. Colbert acknowledges that she sometimes feels uncomfortable getting help.
“I try my best to be gracious and accepting, and to know I can’t control everything,” Colbert said. “I’m learning to surrender to letting things happen how they happen.”
And while she sometimes has to stretch to accept other people’s help, Colbert has no hesitation about letting others know about her struggle.
“I thought, how could I keep something this large and frightening to myself?” she said. “I’m doing this by letting it all hang out. That wouldn’t work for some people, but it does for me.”
Colbert’s journey began five months ago, when an aching shoulder sent her to the doctor. She was told to use ice on her shoulder, which was assumed to have a torn cartilage, and to discontinue her regular exercise regimen of swimming and walking for a while.
But the pain only grew worse, and her arm began swelling. Colbert’s gynecologist sent her straightaway to the lab, where a regular mammogram revealed only a single spot, but a comparative ultrasound showed five large tumors that had wound their way under her right arm, up her chest and into her shoulder.
The radiologist came bursting into the ultrasound room and insisted that Colbert get treatment immediately, she said. Her situation was serious, the doctor emphasized, and couldn’t wait.
Colbert was soon diagnosed with stage III B locally advanced ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer. If one could say there was good news, it was that the cancer had not spread to other organs. But the diagnosis stunned her, especially since Colbert had had a normal mammogram just six months before. She did everything she was supposed to do to detect breast cancer early, Colbert said, including monthly self-exams and a yearly mammogram since age 40.
Because of the size and position of the tumors, she is not now a candidate for surgery. Rather, she began aggressive chemotherapy, which is intended to shrink the tumors, after which she will have surgery, and then radiation treatment.
After the diagnosis, decisions and plans for treatment came so quickly and unexpectedly that her life seems to have turned upside down.
“I feel like I’ve been thrown onto a Tilt-a-Whirl and can’t get off,” she said.
Currently, Colbert has finished three out of eight chemotherapy sessions at the Greater Dayton Cancer Center in Kettering. She has three horrible days after each chemo treatment, she said, during which she feels achy, weak and nauseous. Gradually she begins to feel better until the next treatment, although she’s still subject to fatigue and stomach upsets.
But Colbert’s life between treatments is, well, a little bit boring. Because chemotherapy leaves Colbert susceptible to infection, she’s no longer able to have children in the house, taking away her livelihood of 23 years.
Of course, having no work means no income, and that’s hard. But even more difficult is doing without the great pleasure she has always found in the presence of children.
“I love their fresh minds,” Colbert said, adding that she also loves children’s physical energy and every aspect of caring for them. “Diapers, pottying, noses, the whole bit. When you’re used to having children in the house, without their life force, it feels like yours could slip away.”
Colbert is also not able to visit her father, Chuck, at the Friends Care Assisted Living Center, or to attend any event with crowds of people, for fear of being exposed to germs.
Not working means she has plenty of time for thinking, Colbert said, and this part — not knowing if she will live through this illness or not — is overwhelming. She tries to take her illness one step at a time, focusing on blocks of time, such as the block around her chemotherapy, then her surgery, then radiation.
“You have to keep putting one foot in front of the other,” she said.
Having time to think also means thinking about her debts. While Colbert loved her work, her income was low, and consequently she gradually grew unable to afford health insurance. She recently qualified for an emergency Medicaid program to cover her treatment costs, but Colbert has no idea how many other costs she will face when all the bills come in, she said.
Colbert began her home-based afternoon childcare business 23 years ago, when her boys were 5 and 4 years old. Recently divorced at the time, she sought work involving caring for young children and realized that providing that care in her own home allowed her boys to stay home as well.
Raised in Yellow Springs by parents Chuck and Rita, Colbert was one of five siblings. She left home at age 17 and, after living in Colorado, Dayton, California and North Carolina, returned to the village at 31 with a husband, two children and a college degree in early childhood education and psychology. She and her husband, who had most recently lived in Germany, could have lived anywhere, Colbert said, but they chose to return to Yellow Springs because they believed it was a good place to raise children.
Colbert’s caring and skills contributed to making Yellow Springs a good place to raise children, Jessica Goldner believes, and when Goldner enrolled her daughter at Mills Lawn, she was advised to seek out Colbert’s home for after-school care.
“Everyone knows her,” Goldner said. “Everyone says she’s the best.”
Colbert is deeply appreciative to Goldner for planning the Fun Run. She is looking forward to it and plans to take part, Colbert said. She is dumbfounded by Goldner’s act of kindness, and also appreciates the many other kindnesses that have come her way.
Rides to the hospital for treatments, early evening visits, gift certificates to local eateries and help with home upkeep have been, and continue to be, deeply appreciated, Colbert said. While many have offered food, the side effects of cooking are unfortunately problematic, she said, so she finds it easiest to go downtown and get prepared food during the short windows of time when she has an appetite.
All in all, Colbert has been floored by the help and good wishes she’s received from the community.
“I’m flabbergasted,” she said. “I didn’t know so many people cared.”
Right before her illness was diagnosed, Colbert was poised to buy a puppy. It would be a boxer, of course, like her previous dogs, Petey and Howdy, who over the years became village personalities as they sat outside the Emporium or Tom’s Market waiting for Colbert to return to them.
What Colbert wants more than anything, along with her health, is to return to the pleasure of her days spent with children, pets, friends, family and community.
“I miss the mayhem,” she said, of her pleasure in the presence of young children and pets. “I want that puppy.”