When I was 12 years old, I didn't have a care in the world. My biggest concern was what position my big brother was going to allow me to play in our daily game of cul-de-sac baseball.
All that changed on a cold January day in 2000. My new dilemma was no longer clothes, school or even boys. It was surviving. I was diagnosed with cancer.
Lying in a bed at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the voice of my doctor echoed in my still-sedated brain. "Shelby, you have Ewing's sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer, and we're going to have to begin chemotherapy right away.
Then I was thrown another curveball. I was told our only option to get rid of the tumor was amputation. I would be losing my left leg below the knee. There was no alternative and I had no say in it. During that first round of chemotherapy I learned quickly that childhood, as I knew it, was officially over. A few weeks after starting treatment, I noticed loose hairs on my sweater. As I ran my hand over my head, a clump of hair came out in my fingers. Over the next day or two, the rest of my hair followed.
Finding my true friends at MD Anderson
One of the side effects of being a bald, 12-year-old amputee was that I learned who my true friends were. The nurses at MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital became not only my constant companions, but some of my best friends.
It was not a classmate throwing me a party, but the charge nurse, Dora. It was not a friend holding my hand as I cried, but the night nurse, Carmen. The nurses, more than the doctors or even child life specialists, were the ones who made it seem like everything might actually be OK one day.
May 3, 2000, the day my left leg was amputated, was beyond a doubt the first day of the rest of my life.
Through all of this, my dad was my rock. He was the one who told me that I could either learn from this experience, or I could let it ruin my life. I could let people stare at me, or I could educate them about it. I could forget about others like me, or I could help them.
Changing thoughts into actions
Last summer, I was a professional student nurse extern at MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital
. I must say it was strange to work in the same halls of the pediatric floor where I learned to walk again, and work with some of the same nurses who took care of me when I was sick.
I remember going into a patient's room to change an IV dressing and realized it was that same room where I was diagnosed and this whole journey began.
As a nurse, I hope to show these kids that when I say, "I understand," I truly do understand. I hope that for them I can be a sort of 'light at the end of the tunnel.' I'm a girl who was once just like them but who is now not only alive but living my life and trying to achieve my dreams -- just like they can.
Although cancer is arguably the worst thing that could happen to a person, particularly a 12-year-old, I would not trade the experience for anything. It has made me a different person. I can't wait to become a pediatric oncology nurse, where hopefully I can make the worst experience of these young children's lives just a little bit easier.
Cancer has taught me true grit and the real definition of determination. It taught me how to reach down inside myself, when I truly believed I was empty, and find strength somewhere within my depths.
Even though it turned my life upside down for a while, I believe I am a better person because of my experience fighting for my life against cancer.