Journey of faith: Couple embraces light, hope while navigating rare cancers

By Jessica Brodie

COLUMBIA—Betty and Shealy McCoy are each living with unusual cancer—each cancer totally unrelated to the other, and so rare they account for less than 1 percent of all cancers.

Even though their cancers are debilitating and aggressive, even though they know they could return at any moment and knock their feet right out from under them, the McCoys have decided to rely completely on their faith in God and to fight back against the disease, to choose life no matter the circumstances.

And in that faith, the two members of Trenholm Road United Methodist Church have discovered unexpected beauty and humanity that they never would have known had they not come this close to death and come out the other side.

Betty McCoy had leiomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer that develops in the smooth muscles and soft tissues of the body; she was diagnosed in 2004 and is currently in remission. Her husband, Shealy, was diagnosed with appendiceal carcinoma in 2011, more specifically diagnosed as peritoneal carcinomatosis, a cancer that develops in a thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen.

By all accounts, they’re fighting tough odds: so tough it took them two and a half years to even find a person living with Betty’s disease, so tough only a percentage survive the surgery Shealy had, and an even smaller percentage survive with quality of life.

But their story is a happy one, they say—sometimes humorous, sometimes uplifting, and always circling back to God, who keeps them in His hands always.

Betty’s surprise

A scheduling snafu led to Betty’s surprise diagnosis. Her daughter, in high school at the time, had been scheduled to see the doctor, but at the last minute she couldn’t make the appointment. Betty, who’d been experiencing some bleeding, asked if she could slip in and be seen in her daughter’s place. That might have saved her life—the doctor felt she should have a hysterectomy, and surgery was scheduled.

But surgery didn’t exactly go as planned.

“I should have known something was up when three surgeons came in to say, ‘Hello, I operated on you during surgery,’” said Betty from the couch of her sunny Heathwood-area living room, a wry smile on her lips. “It was apparently the amount of bleeding during surgery that clued them in. They ended up calling in two additional surgeons and found the leiomyosarcoma hiding behind a large benign tumor inside of the uterus.”

The leiomyosarcoma had pierced the uterus but, luckily, not gone all the way through the organ. But sarcomas are forceful and fast-acting cancers, and doctors had to work quickly. Chemotherapy and radiation doesn’t do much for her type of cancer, Betty said, so surgeons focused on removing the cancer through surgery. She knew her cancer was rare, but she didn’t focus on that. She just turned it all over to God and focused on her faith in getting well.

“I never had a fear of dying—I just wanted to see my youngest graduate from high school,” Betty said; that daughter is now 26 and has graduated from high school, college and graduate school. “All the extraneous stuff falls away when you go through this. In the hospital room, the prayers are palpable. You can actually feel them.”

Their work was a success. Two scares and 11 years later, Betty remains in remission.

Shealy’s turn

But seven years after Betty’s diagnosis, it was Shealy’s turn. The family had been celebrating the graduation of their daughter’s boyfriend, and Shealy became violently ill that Saturday night.

“I thought I’d eaten bad barbecue,” he said. “My stomach was the size of a basketball.”

By Tuesday morning, Shealy was in agony. Unbeknownst to him, he had a massive tumor that had burst, which ironically was what saved his life. They rushed to the hospital, not knowing what was going on.

“But when I came out of surgery, we were told it was not cancer,” Shealy said; his type of cancer doesn’t typically present like other forms.

Doctors did a biopsy anyway, and the results stunned everyone. It was definitely cancer, and so rare that only four cancer centers in the United States had the skill set to be able to operate on him. It was also advanced: stage IV.

The diagnosis shell-shocked the family; the day they got word, the McCoys’ son and daughter-in-law were moving to the West Coast.

“But we encouraged them to go,” Betty said. “As they moved, we said, ‘We’ll come see you.’ That became a strong motivator; Shealy needed to get well so we could go see them.”

“It wasn’t the trip that mattered; it was the hope,” Shealy said—just like with Betty’s cancer, when she seized on seeing their youngest graduate from high school, that trip to the West Coast became their fixation, their reason not to give up when the odds were stacked so strongly against them.

For Shealy’s cancer was not only rare, it was deadly. Quickly, they made plans to travel to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where they would soon begin a treatment so dangerous it has to be a last option, when there is no other hope for survival.

Doctors performed a HIPEC— Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy—one of the most innovative treatments available. Also known as the “hot chemo bath,” doctors cut from the sternum to the pubic bone, remove cancerous tumors from the abdominal cavity, then bathe the cavity with extremely hot chemotherapy to kill any cancer cells left in there. It’s risky and new, but with Shealy, it worked.

“My first surgery was 13 hours long, what they call the Mother of All Surgeries, more intense than heart surgery,” Shealy said. “You sign these papers, and they all say ‘in the event of death,’ and it was all very clear to me. You know you’re living in that moment.”

As a Christian, Shealy had made peace with the possibility that he might not make it, but he wasn’t about to give up the fight.

“When you’re younger, you don't think about your mortality,” Shealy said.

“But then it’s here, the end of your life is right here, right in front of your nose,” Betty added, raising her palm flat to her face for emphasis.

Shealy nodded. “You can either decide as a faith-filled person to engage in that fight or give up that fight.”

Shealy wanted to fight, to live.

Shealy was lucky: his cancer was still gelatinous; had it been hard, it would have been inoperable. They were able to remove much of the cancer. But by no means was Shealy home free. He has to-date gone through two more surgeries, plus a heart surgery back home in Columbia to repair some of the damage done. After an optimistic checkup in October, he’s preparing for his checkup May 1, which they hope will reveal continued good news.

Unexpected gifts

But in the midst of all the hardship, a lot of life has happened, too, including friendships with people who have enriched their ways they never imagined.

Shealy’s surgeon, Dr. Konstantinos Votanopoulos, a Grecian-born man of God who Shealy said “is God’s gift to me.”

“When I met him, he laid out a pretty scary scenario,” Shealy said. “And his statement to me rings true today: ‘I will work with you to give you quality and quantity of life. We do not yet know what that will be.’”

Shealy blinked, quiet for a moment, then added, “You put your life in the hands of these people, and not every doctor is a person of faith, but Dr. Votanopoulos is. He feels he’s there as an instrument of God.”

They have also cultivated friendships with other unimagined sorts: other patients with his disease, including one who has since died. A woman whom they call a wonderfully compassionate state Social Security worker, who helped them navigate easily through the maze that can be disability benefits. Friends and acquaintances both of their faith and others, who have committed the McCoys to deep prayer.

“We have Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and even atheists praying for us!” Betty said, laughing.

They’ve also seen all three of their children married, and new grandchildren born.

“The theme for our lives is how our faith carries us. You have challenges, and you get through the lowest lows, and you either live in that moment or you start dying slowly, not just physically dying, but spiritually dying,” Shealy said.

“You just have to trust and pray yourself through,” Betty said. “You don’t know the whys and hows. You just have to accept it. We never really asked ‘why me.’ You just struggle sometimes with the purpose in all this.”

Trip of a lifetime

They’ve also experienced the trip of a lifetime: a visit to one of the five D-Day beaches of World War II, Utah Beach, in Normandy, France, where Shealy’s father landed with Patton’s 3rd Army in June 1944. They stayed at a bed and breakfast there with their oldest daughter and their 2-year-old grandson.

In an unusual twist of circumstance, they met another couple who was there for exactly the same reason: the man had peritoneal carcinoma, and he, too, was preparing for his second surgery. This was a bucket-list trip.

“That trip was meant to be— God meant for us to be there,” Betty said. “He’s always in the midst; God’s there, so much a part of our life.”

‘Buck up and pray’

And that’s the rub, they say—no matter what we go through, no matter how difficult, God is there. He’s right beside us, leading us to friends and love and experiences that can be so beautiful and so enriching that they lead to new insight, glory and grace, no matter the outcome.

“Perhaps the purpose is for people to realize, through your struggles and your relationship with God, you can overcome a lot of things,” Shealy said. “Not to be a Pollyanna, but rally to get past it or just fall. You accept your own mortality, you know this will eventually take your life, but you’re choosing to live.”

“You do try to embrace life,” Betty added. “Sometimes the news takes a hard toll, but you buck up and you pray and you rearrange your mindset and you find humor.”

Sitting on the couch in their sunny living room, their dog on the couch between them, the two tease each other about how their minds have gone fuzzy from all the treatments. They even finish each other’s sentences.

“We hope we’ll get a good report at the next appointment,” Betty says, smiling at her husband.

“But if not, we’ll just reassess,” Shealy says, smiles back.

“And, I don't know, go visit our family a lot,” Betty finishes, shrugging.

They’re OK with it. After all—God’s with them. Every step of the way.

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