CM nurse lived the cancer experience she now treats
When Shauna Beckett, RN, a Floor Nurse on 4 Henson, the Children’s Mercy Hematology/Oncology unit, walks into a room, she knows what her patients are going through. After all, Shauna is a 15-year survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma. She was diagnosed and treated at the hospital in 2006.
Shauna’s journey with cancer started when she was just 14 years old. “I was a classic case of someone whose cancer went undetected for several months before I came to Children’s Mercy,” she said.
For Shauna, one of her first symptoms was weight loss. “My mom noticed that my clothes were getting baggy, and I was very tired,” she said. “I was an active kid. I would go to a basketball or volleyball practice that summer, then come home and nap for three or four hours. That wasn’t like me at all.”
When a large bump suddenly appeared on the right side of her neck, Shauna’s parents took her to several doctors who diagnosed her with mononucleosis, a contagious disease commonly caused by the Epstein-Barr virus.
More than mono
Though she was prescribed antibiotics, the bump on her neck had grown to the size of a golf ball, and Shauna was getting sicker by the day.
“I remember waking up in the middle of the night and I would be soaking wet with sweat,” Shauna said. “That was one of the final triggers for my parents that this was more than mono.”
Her concerned parents decided to take Shauna to the Children’s Mercy Hospital Kansas Emergency Services Department where the physician who treated her ordered a chest X-ray.
“As soon as they got the X-ray results, they could see I had a large mass in my chest,” Shauna said. “They sent me to the Hematology/Oncology Clinic at the Adele Hall Campus immediately.”
There, Shauna and her family met with Alan Gamis, MD, pediatric oncologist. Dr. Gamis ordered a biopsy, blood work and other testing. To expedite her care, Shauna had a port-a-catheter placed at the same time the biopsy was performed so she could begin chemotherapy treatments immediately.
“They were pretty sure I had lymphoma, but the biopsy confirmed the type and stage,” Shauna said. A PET scan showed Shauna’s medical team exactly where the cancer was located in her body, and because of the chest mass, she also had a pulmonary function test.
With all those tests completed in July 2006, Shauna said it was “go-time.” Dr. Gamis presented a study to Shauna and her family from the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), and she decided to participate.
“The study was looking at whether therapy could be personalized better, giving less to those who didn’t need so much and more to those who did,” Dr. Gamis explained. “One of the primary aspects of the study was to reduce the risk of later breast cancer, which was high in those who received chest radiation. Shauna responded very well to chemotherapy and was randomized to no radiation.
“Her participation, along with hundreds of others, showed we could eliminate radiation in children who had a good, rapid early response to chemotherapy.”
As Shauna began her treatment, Dr. Gamis recalled her as a headstrong individual who wanted to know every detail of the disease she was fighting and the proposed treatment plan. She also had tremendous family support, a key factor when facing a cancer diagnosis.
“Shauna and her family understood that participating in a clinical trial not only could help her but could help other children facing the same diagnosis in the future,” Dr. Gamis said. “By taking part in the trial, Shauna received the best therapy available at the time for newly diagnosed patients with Hodgkin lymphoma.”
Shauna’s treatments were delivered in the Hematology/Oncology Outpatient Clinic, as long as she had no complications. “My protocol was a week of chemotherapy, then three weeks off to recover for the next cycle. I came into the clinic for my first cycle of chemotherapy and ended up being admitted for the rest of that round,” Shauna said.
“I would be pretty sick that first week, then I would feel good by the third week, then the cycle would start all over again,” Shauna described. Over the next six months, Shauna battled fevers, a skin infection, nausea and vomiting, mouth sores, fatigue, severe bone pain and hair loss. But by the end of November, there was good news.
“When treatment ended, I felt pretty good, but my body so weak. I had no strength at all,” she said. Still, Shauna’s scan results showed the treatment not only worked, but that she was in remission.
“At Thanksgiving, my parents announced to our family that the cancer was gone,” Shauna recalled. “There were a lot of happy tears from the adults. I think my parents felt like it was over. They were focused on survival.”
But Shauna was focused on recovery, and the long-term effects of what she’d been through.
“I had to give myself a lot of grace and time to slowly return to normal,” Shauna said. “I had to build my strength back up, and even though I tried to go back to school in January 2007, I could only go part time.
“Plus, in the midst of treatment, my family moved and I changed schools. It was tough being the bald new girl, but eventually I realized I had been through much worse. At some point, I just stopped caring what anyone else thought.”
It’s just a phone call …
Over the next year, Shauna continued her recovery, returning to the hospital every three months for check-ups, blood work and scans.
“I remember waiting for that phone call with the news of my results,” Shauna said. “ It’s crazy because it’s just a phone call, but you can’t eat or sleep without that information. It determines what your life is going to look like. I would be so anxious to get the news.
“For me, hearing that I was in remission was a huge relief, but it was nerve-wracking to know that the cancer could come back at any minute,” Shauna added.
As the months went by, scan after scan confirmed that Shauna was in remission, and she continued to regain her strength. By the summer of 2007, about a year after her diagnosis was made, she began to feel like her old self.
“I started playing basketball again, running track and hanging out with my friends,” Shauna said. “Life felt normal.”
A new direction
Like many teens who experience a life-threatening diagnosis, Shauna began to re-examine her future. Guided by her strong faith, Shauna said she knew through her cancer diagnosis that God was asking her to do something different with her life.
“From the time I was just a little kid, I loved the weather, and I always thought I would become a meteorologist,” Shauna said. “I was a weather nerd. But after being diagnosed with cancer, I decided I wanted to study nursing, and more specifically, become a pediatric oncology nurse.”
After graduating from high school, Shauna was accepted into the Bachelor of Science in nursing program at Rockhurst University in Kansas City.
Four years later, she graduated with a BSN and a minor in political science. “During my capstone project, I requested to be placed at Children’s Mercy. I did my final practicum in the emergency room, and then was hired right out of school to work on 4 Henson.”
Dreams do come true!
But working with oncology patients at Children’s Mercy wasn’t Shauna’s only dream. She married her college sweetheart, Luke Beckett, shortly after graduating from Rockhurst. And knowing she had always wanted to be a mom, the couple decided to start a family.
“I knew fertility issues could be a long-term concern after the chemotherapy treatments I received, and that I might have a shorter window for my child-bearing years than normal,” Shauna said. “That’s why I decided to become a mom sooner rather than later.”
Though Shauna did experience some challenges with her fertility, she’s overcome those as well, giving birth to two healthy children, 2-year-old Hadley and 4-year-old Corbin.
“These ages are so crazy but so fun,” Shauna said. “I wish they could stay this age forever. We love doing anything outdoors, like hiking and exploring. Even through the pandemic, we would go find an empty trail in Kansas City to hike.”
My Children’s Mercy family
Throughout Shauna’s cancer journey, her Children’s Mercy care team has been at her side. “Dr. Gamis and Joy Bartholomew, his nurse practitioner, are amazing! I cannot imagine a better oncology team in America!
“As a nurse on the floor who has experienced care at Children’s Mercy firsthand and has now seen Dr. Gamis interact with countless patients, he’s the same for everyone. There’s no favorite. He wants to save everyone’s life.”
In fact, Shauna and her family believe that God used Dr. Gamis to save her life. “He was at the right place at the right time. We are so thankful for all he did and we admire him so much.
“The other nurses on the unit don’t have the same personal experience as a patient that I do, so when I hear them say how kind and caring Dr. Gamis is, I just smile. I know that he treats every patient with the same care and respect that he gave me,” Shauna said.
Dr. Gamis said the thirst for knowledge and detail that helped Shauna beat cancer are what make her such an outstanding pediatric oncology nurse today.
“During rounds, Shauna really speaks up and advocates for her patients, providing great insight into how they are doing physically and emotionally,” Dr. Gamis said.
Now that she’s been cancer-free for 15 years, Shauna no longer worries that her next scan might show the cancer is back or that she needs more treatment. “I’ve finally been able to let that go,” she said.
But her involvement in that clinical trial 15 years ago has helped other cancer patients like her. “The treatment Shauna received in the COG trial became the standard of care for newly diagnosed Hodgkin lymphoma patients over the next decade,” Dr. Gamis added.
As a nurse who has helped family after family, she also realizes how much Children’s Mercy does for patients behind the scenes. “When I look back, I can see the bigger picture. The financial department was such a big help to my family. They never could have afforded my medical bills without help. I’ve personally benefited from fundraising efforts like Big Slick,” Shauna said.
“If you work in finance or philanthropy, it would be easy to sometimes think that you’re sitting at a computer, wondering if what you do really makes a difference. I want you to know that it does,” Shauna said.
“I’m so thankful for everything my Children’s Mercy care team did for me, but as an oncology nurse, I know that I have looked after so many kids whose stories don’t turn out like mine. It happens every moment of every day. Some family’s world is crumbling somewhere. That’s hard for me to accept.”
Which is why Shauna is sharing her story now. “I never want to take away from what a family is going through. But I will share my story if I think it will encourage and inspire the patient to fight, to try harder, to lift their head up and to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
“As a patient, Shauna was positive and a great advocate for herself,” Dr. Gamis added. “Her experience provides her with a great compassion and empathy for what our patients and families are going through. I am proud of her every day when I see her taking care of patients. She’s proof that there’s not only life after cancer, but a happy, successful life.”