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People Profile: 37 Years of Survivorship

Network - Winter 2008

Written by Louise Shelby about herself

Louise Shelby (right), a 37-year cancer survivor, enjoys a coffee with
Antoinette Jackson.

In 1970, Louise Shelby was a typical fourth grader. She read Archie comics, chewed bubble gum and had a crush on David Cassidy. When the summer arrived, she was expecting a long visit with her grandmother in East Texas, lounging by the neighborhood pool and eating ice cream with her friends. That isn’t what happened.

As she wandered the halls of her grandmother’s old Southern house, she looked in the mirror and saw something growing in her nose. Within two weeks, Louise was standing in front of M. D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute.

She didn’t know that she had been diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma. Three different doctors had told her parents to take her home and wait for her to die. However, a nurse in a dark corridor whispered to her mother, “Have you thought about M. D. Anderson? Well, think about it.”

Cancer treatment had barely begun, and few doctors understood that M. D. Anderson was one of only a few hospitals in the country making unprecedented progress in treating cancer. However, Louise’s mother was repeatedly told that the cancer center only had experimental treatment to offer, nothing that would keep her daughter alive.

Knowing the truth helps

She finally told Louise that she had cancer, explaining that because of the location of her tumor around her eye and throughout the right side of her sinus cavity, she would eventually become blind in her right eye. Her mother was direct and honest with her, and this allowed Louise to participate more effectively in her fight to survive.

In June 1970, at M. D. Anderson and at the age of nine, Louise Shelby became the third child to be successfully treated for rhabdomyosarcoma. The first two girls to survive had been treated three years before and immediately took on an important role in her life. They were proof that, while the mortality rate was 90%, a few people did survive cancer. And they looked so normal. Louise often wondered how they could look like any other child after they had been through the same treatment she had.

Both of Louise’s chemotherapy drugs were depressants, so it was obvious to everyone around her that her treatment was working. Louise was fractious; she was obnoxious; she was rude; and to everyone’s relief, she went home cancer-free at the end of August.

Today, the survival rate for pediatric cancers is 70% to 92% and embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma is considered one of the easier types to treat.

Thirty-seven years later, Louise has an associate’s degree in commercial art and works in Austin, Texas, her hometown, as a substitute teacher specializing in special education and special needs children. She also has spent the last 2 1/2 years writing her memoirs and fills her spare time looking for a publisher. While she’s still fractious, obnoxious and rude, she also is still cancer-free.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center