Health & Wellness

One dance step at a time for Colbert

Since being diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer nine months ago, Shelley Colbert has endured chemotherapy, major surgery and radiation treatment. Along with the resulting pain, fatigue and anxiety of those treatments, Colbert has grappled with another challenge as well — accepting help from the community where she grew up, raised her children, and cared for the children of others.

“It’s very hard to ask for help,” Colbert said in an interview last week. “I’m tremendously grateful to all who have stepped forward with help or good wishes.”

While asking for help is a struggle for Colbert, who prides herself on her independence, she’s reluctantly allowing her friends to ask for her. Specifically, friends have organized a benefit concert this Saturday, Jan. 16, from 5 p.m. to midnight at the Emporium with a variety of local musicians. The music is organized by Steve McColaugh.

Carl Schumacher and Friends will play from about 5 p.m. to 7, Dawn Cooksey and Route 68 South at 8 p.m. and McColaugh’s band, the Undercovered, will play from 9:30 p.m. on.

Colbert vetoed charging admission for the event, according to her longtime friend and event organizer Peggy Koebernick, so there is no charge, but donations are welcome. The purpose of the event is to help cover Colbert’s living expenses since she has been unable to work since last March and will remain unable for the foreseeable future. While most of Colbert’s medical treatment is currently covered by a special short-term form of Medicaid, and a benefit fun run/walk last May raised enough money to pay Colbert’s living expenses until now, those funds are running out.

“I was thinking about what it would be like to be in her shoes,” Koebernick said, regarding her decision to organize the event. “I wanted to tap into the energy of the community.”

The community’s energy so far has been extraordinary, according to Colbert, who describes herself as astonished at people’s generosity, both in donating to a special fund at US Bank, and offering goods and services. Those who can’t attend the fundraiser but would like to make a donation may do so at the Shelley Colbert Fund at US Bank.

Colbert, one of a family of five children raised by her parents Chuck and Rita, grew up in Yellow Springs. She left town to go to college, and returned after earning a degree in early childhood education. When her sons, Ben and Spencer Beggs, were small, Colbert started her childcare business at her Miami Drive home, where for 23 years she cared for village children until she received her diagnosis of Stage III breast cancer. At that time, doctors told her she would no longer be able to lift children after her treatment, Colbert said, adding with a smile that they also advised her to give up chopping wood and hauling water from the well.

After chemotherapy ended in August, Colbert, who is 60, had a mastectomy in September. And cancer doesn’t deal out any favors. The night before her surgery, her father, who had suffered a stroke several weeks earlier, died at Friends Care Community. It was rough, she said, with the saving grace that at least all her family had already come home for her surgery and were here when her father died.

The chemotherapy Colbert initially received worked remarkably well, eradicating all traces of tumors on her scans. Her doctors were amazed, as a complete response is relatively rare. However, because her cancer had been so aggressive, they urged her to “play her hand all in” and to accept equally aggressive treatments in surgery and radiation.

The decision to go ahead with seven weeks of radiation — which ends this week — has been the hardest of all for Colbert. Her instincts told her that so much radiation can’t be good for her body. Radiation often causes significant damage to the heart, lungs and thyroid, and her doctors couldn’t guarantee those side effects wouldn’t happen to her.

And Colbert knows something about side effects. The tumors themselves caused lymphedema, leading to pain and swelling in her right arm and shoulder area. The condition is chronic, and Colbert is working on finding ways to manage it. She thinks swimming could be a good antidote, as soon as she’s allowed back into her beloved swimming pools.

As with each step of the nine-month ordeal so far, Colbert has struggled with making decisions that often seem overwhelming. Mountains of information are available on the Internet, but the amount seems impossible to sort through, although a good friend, Mary Miller, has volunteered her skills to analyze research results. But the process often makes her feel crazy, ever focused on cancer, cancer, cancer.

The radiation left her in pain, with skin burns, and Colbert still worries whether she made the right choice, or whether, even if the radiation does buy her time, it will be in a life that feels not worth living. But in the end, she pursued the aggressive treatment that her doctors urged.

“I want people to know I’m doing everything I have to do to stay alive,” she said.

There are people who say that cancer has taught them how to live, or helped them to live better. So far, Shelley Colbert is not one of those people, but she hasn’t ruled out the possibility.

“I’m hoping maybe the silver lining will reveal itself to me soon,” she said. And the silver lining so far has been that cancer helped her know who her friends are, and that she has far more friends than she ever imagined.

“I don’t know how to thank people for all they’ve done for me,” she said. “You don’t know how many people care about you, but they do. It’s been heartening and humbling. This is a fantastic community.”

And there’s a bright spot on the horizon. That puppy that Colbert has been longing for is the first thing on her list after follow-up treatment begins and the weather warms up.

“I can’t wait to get my puppy,” she said.

While Colbert loves to dance and would like nothing better than to dance until midnight on Jan. 16, she’s expecting that fatigue from the radiation treatments may prevent her from doing so. But she’ll do her best to show up, with her new sleek and short hair. And if she has to go home early, well, she’ll spend a cold winter evening warmed by the thought of her many friends, new and old, dancing the night away.

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