Cancer patient maintains spirit as she fights disease|Swindell cheers on upcoming Cancer Survivors Day

Published 1:18 am Friday, June 12, 2009

Managing editor

It wasn’t until Sheila Swindell stopped screaming that she could hear her own thoughts.
The 25-year Chocowinity resident had been sitting alone and lonely in a temporary trailer that day in January 2000 while her permanent house was being raised to prevent future flood water from reaching it. Her husband was at work.
She recalls the day — the moment — with alarming clarity. She was waiting to hear the results of a recent test she’d taken after discovering a lump in her breast.
At 10 a.m., the phone rang. It was a Greenville doctor.
“Sheila, it’s cancer,” he said. “It’s real bad.”
Swindell couldn’t believe it.
“I just ran out of the camper screaming,” she recalled. “I was thinking ‘How is this possible!? How can this be!?’ That was a terrible moment.”
Over the years, Swindell said, she had undergone 15 mammograms, “and jumped for joy every time I had one when everything was OK.”
Her clean medical history exacerbated the stunning news. She discovered later, she said, that her mammograms had not detected the tumor hiding on the chest wall of her breast.
Swindell, 64, now champions the combined use of ultrasound and mammograms to detect tumors such as hers.
She employed that technology recently, when nearly 10 years after her first tumor appeared, she discovered another suspicious lump under her arm. That was eight weeks ago: Tests again indicated cancer.
This time, radiation is being used to battle the tumor.
Swindell is just about to finish 33 days of radiation treatment at the Beaufort County Medical Center’s Marion L. Shepard Cancer Center. She has been treated on and off — mostly on — at the center for the past 10 years.
Though the intensive therapy has caused her skin to split and bleed at times, it pales by comparison to her first year of breast-cancer treatment.
What Swindell calls “hard” drugs — potent chemotherapy medication — wracked her body that first year. Despite the aggressive treatment, doctors eventually had to remove her left breast.
“I was a basket case,” she said. “Physically and mentally, I just wasn’t in good shape.”
Losing her hair didn’t help.
“I like to fix up and look nice, so I think for people who like to fix up, it’s dramatic,” she said. “It was terrible. Ten years ago, it wasn’t as open as it is right now. That was a big blow for me, even though it’s unimportant.”
Swindell, who grew up in Southampton, England, and came to the United States at age 17, is an ideal poster child for the 2009 Marion L. Shepard Cancer Center Survivors Day.
She will be among at least a hundred local cancer survivors treated to a night of laughter with humorist Dave Caperton.
Swindell believes in the power of laughter.
“People need some joy,” she said. “Joy, joy, joy. Laughter and joy is what people need.”
The 2009 Marion L. Shepard Cancer Center Survivors Day is from 1 to 4 p.m. at First Church of Christ, 520 E. 10th St. in Washington. For more information, call 252-975-4308.