Swansea resident Sheila McGlown has lived with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer for eight years and now is featured in a national art project to raise awareness of the disease.
“I’ve outlived the (life) expectancy of metastatic breast cancer, and I’m still here to tell about it and hopefully give people hope,” McGlown said with calm confidence. Her smile was warm and her home, inviting. Christmas lights twinkled behind her as sunshine filled the room.
Through a series of underwater photos featuring MBC patients as body-painted models, the #ThisIsMBC Serenity Project, created by METAvivor, tells the diagnosis stories of 16 people from around the country. McGlown was selected to participate after submitting an application — and facing her fear of water.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, underwater? I’m like scared — petrified!’” McGlown, 51, recalled saying after hearing about the project. “I decided to do it because it made me feel beautiful; it made me feel strong.”
McGlown, who served 25 years in the Air Force, said she decided to honor the military in her underwater image by portraying an American flag. Her photograph represents the month of July in a 16-month limited edition calendar for sale in the METAvivor online store.
“It’s to show metastatic breast cancer patients that you don’t have to let the disease define you. You don’t have to let the disease take all the joy out of you,” McGlown said.
She said another reason she participated was to raise money for research.
“In October, you see pink everywhere and everyone’s talking about breast cancer … and now you don’t hear anything about breast cancer; you don’t see the pink signs,” McGlown said. “And you know, pink is not saving my life. Research is. Research saves lives.”
Thirty percent of breast cancer cases will progress to Stage IV, according to METAvivor, however, research of metastasis — the spreading of cancer — receives less than 5 percent of the funds raised for all breast cancer research.
From Serenity Project, 100 percent of the proceeds will go toward metastatic breast cancer research.
“We need a cure. We need more research ... We need more money to go into research,” McGlown said.
Beth Fairchild, president of METAvivor, collaborated with artists Keith and Ren Dixon to bring the Serenity Project to life because she said patients with MBC often go unnoticed.
“Metastatic breast cancer is often overlooked when you see breast cancer campaigns … and the women and men who live with this disease are overlooked and the lives that they live with this disease,” Fairchild said.
She believes it’s important to celebrate the lives of MBC patients, including McGlown.
“What I wanted to do with the Serenity Project was to really tell the story of these women — and the one gentleman that participated — and show the world that people are living really full lives despite the situation that they’re facing with their cancer,” Fairchild said.
The full life McGlown leads today involves advocacy work for MBC in her community. “(Cancer) is a part of my life and … so I said if it’s gonna be a part of my life, I’m gonna make something out of it,” McGlown said assertively.
From speaking at events and doing interviews to hosting a support group and participating in the Serenity Project, McGlown said she sees these opportunities as a platform for her voice.
“This cancer is not about Sheila. It’s about ... making sure that you’re doing your self breast exams, or that you’re getting your mammograms over 40, or you learn about this disease,” she said. “If by me talking to people is going to remind you, ‘Oh, I didn’t do my self breast exam,’ then I’ve done what I’ve supposed to do.”
McGlown, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, relocated to Scott Air Force Base in 2009. Months later, she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer — the same kind that took her mother’s life only five years earlier.
I have my faith; I have my family; and I have my friends that tell me everyday, ‘Sheila, you can do it.’
Swansea resident Sheila McGlown
After feeling a strange sensation while sneezing and thinking it was her breast, McGlown said she went to the doctor, who recommended a mammogram.
“As soon as (the doctor) told me to sit down, I was like, ‘Oh my God, something’s wrong.’ Then they were like, ‘OK, we need to do an ultrasound,’” McGlown said. “So the radiologist brought me in and said, ‘OK — do you see all this white stuff? That’s cancer — and what you were feeling was it already spread to (your) liver and ribs.’”
McGlown said that was the moment she started another chapter of her life.
According to Dr. Cynthia Ma, associate professor in the Department of Medicine Oncology Division at Washington University, a minority of patients seen have stage IV breast cancer to begin with. McGlown is in this minority of patients.
“Stage I to III would be early stage, and this represents about, I would say, 94 percent of our patients,” Ma said.
“The majority of the (patients) with metastatic breast cancer are not cured,” Ma explained. “The majority of the patients have to be treated almost continuously with medications, but then the cancer can still progress.”
McGlown listed aspects of her treatment. “I’ve been on chemo. I’ve had a mastectomy. I’ve had my ovaries removed. I’ve had reconstructive surgery, and I get treatment — I go down to Siteman (Cancer Center) every month still, and I’ll probably do that for the rest of my life to get a maintenance treatment — which is good, it’s working for me.”
Admitting each day is a challenge, McGlown said she stays motivated by three things. “I have my faith, I have my family and I have my friends that tell me everyday, ‘Sheila, you can do it.’”
For more information about the Serenity Project, visit mbcinfocenter.com/this-is-mbc.