Written By: Nikol Hamilton, in memory of her husband.
We were married for seven years and spent a utopic equine life before cancer traveling to Southeast Circuit Pro Rodeos and building our equine farm called Seldom Rest Ranch. He was a steer wrestler and I ran barrels. He loved being a farrier and building handmade horseshoes, competing in blacksmith competitions, and working on elite performance horses. He was a charming, smart, and athletic man who was my high school rodeo sweetheart. We loved to swing dance together!
ME: My first reaction to the diagnoses was that I was initially furious that more than one doctor on the first admission had missed his presenting symptoms. I instinctively engaged my trauma nurse skills into resource mode and absorbing every piece of information about CRC I could find online. I knew before he did that he “had a diagnosis.” He woke up from surgery to us having to deliver the news (myself and his mom). We coped with a rollercoaster of emotional and family trauma for the next 18 months. Before he died, we had a last season of hope and heralding a final resolution together in private to make faith, family and future a priority. That is the only way I cope today—I have a mission to pay it forward because of the promise he asked of me.
US: (ALERT- I am a nurse so some of the details are nursified & candid) –Can’t help it! A brief novel recap below:
On New Year’s Day 2008, after a recent season of marital problems, we were driving 3 hours to my brother’s arena for a family fun day of cowboy/cowgirl practice. It was supposed to be the typical happiest day of the year, right? New Year’s resolutions and big dreams for the future is how we chatted on the drive down to south Arkansas. We never lagged for conversation. He was a dreamer and I was the doer!!!
Unfortunately, within hours of Shannon trying to steer wrestle and help our nephew bulldog he became ill quickly. His mom and I were both RNs and we knew he must have some kind of obstruction based on the symptoms he was having. He was modest about these issues and just wanted to tough it out, drive home and hope it would get better. It didn’t! We drove like mad to get home and went to the local ER and they dismissed his symptoms for constipation.
For two more weeks, he tried to act like he was okay, but he became more and more fatigued, emotionally distressed, and his belly was huge. Nausea and vomiting were relentless and on January15, it became “D” day, he got admitted to a different facility. Luckily, a doctor I used to work for finally got him evaluated properly and prepped for an exploratory emergent surgery. He didn’t want to hear our perceptions pre-op so he went in blind to what it really could have been. He thought he was invincible like that. Sadly, during the case the doctor came out and gave us the news and we had to make a decision to put a port in. Shannon had Stage IV Colon Cancer with Liver Mets. His mom and I were burdened with sharing this news with him when he woke up. He was devastated and angry. Especially, and more so when we began questioning other family members and then found out about multiple GI related history of disease. This was all preventable! He said over and over that he felt like this diagnosis was like a gun to his head. Raw, real, and a reason to remember!
From that moment on cancer began to ravage every part of our lives. For a long time he ran, ran from the fear. We struggled through the cancer chaos together and had to make financial, personal, faith, and marital decisions that even family and friends didn’t understand (and still don’t to this day). It’s what we needed to do to secure mine and Carson’s future as best we could although it still would leave a huge recovery mission for me as single mom. Cancer at a young age bankrupts you financially, emotionally, and physically in so many ways. As a self-employed cowboy, he knew we were ruined. He had no life insurance. I was in graduate school getting my master’s degree in nursing. Our relationship of love, loss, and legacy was a journey that had dark moments and ended with a light of collaborative commitment in the face of his resolution that death was imminent, faith was not final but full of hope, and change for the future was needed. He felt it was too late for him but left me with a final request. Shannon died July 5, 2010 at the age of 35. His freedom in death was knowing the fear was gone and I would go onto honor his family genetic risk by being a friend to those who needed to hear our story.
It’s not exactly your typical cancer happy ending…..but it is turning out that way now with all that Carson and I are doing. It is all beginning to feel valued and there is a deep book of faith to write about it someday too. We still have survivorship (as a family) issues. For example, to this day, I cannot get access to his tumor from the pathology lab nor will his paternal side of the family submit for genetic testing in order to help the multitudes in the family and our own daughter pursue the genetic counselors recommendation. I am fighting hard every day to change this and cannot just WAIT and SEE.
Shannon had a special message and life philosophy that he wanted me to honor. We have always gone by faith first, family, friends, fitness, and the farm. His final request to me was to NOT let his death be in vein and build a #livinglegacy campaign to help others. To do that, I was to continue to grow each of those “F’s to educate, equip, and lead others and myself. This hope would be to take my career and pioneer prevention for Carson, myself, and others. I do this by sharing more and more of our light and dark story each year. I continue remembering each facet of our lives daily and hope to capture the full story one day. Till then, I am committed to wellness and education about CRC in our state and abroad. I advocate in my nursing profession and as a role model to my daughter (who is now 11) for prevention, fitness, gut health, and education to fight with freedom and not fear of this beatable and treatable disease. SCREENING earlier IS the first line of defense!
Shannon’s oncologist looked at me one day and asked me if I was going to “LIVE IN FEAR OR FREEDOM OF THIS DISEASE”? How ironic –that was one of many GODWINKS of faith. At the time, my husband was running from cancer and the doctor knew I was going to be a single mom one day. He recognized my own morbid obesity and mal-effective coping. With the future of Carson’s (our daughter) potential genetic factors he “shook me” up by getting to the heart of the matter. That doctor addressed the need for me to embrace wellness again and it began my journey to get active, fit, and healthy the right way. So, “Get Your Rear in Gear” is a culmination of the last 5 years of doing just that. I transitioned an advanced practice nurse passion in pediatric health to a more educator role in family wellness with a deeper faith message. I got fit by becoming a health coach, hosting wellness events, sharing my nurse role in community, and coordinating Arkansas events about colorectal cancer.
The last two years I have committed to partner with organizations for a purpose. One example is getting the Arkansas Governor to proclaim my Razorback state with the March Colorectal Cancer Awareness declaration. The best way to educate, equip and empower community awareness is to connect with the people who have an influence. That starts with my state officials! I secured the proclamation to start a chain of “pay it forward” to raise awareness in Arkansas. Now people reach out to me because they saw my picture with the governor through social media! The impact is a daily journey of healing, hope, and helping others to honor Shannon’s living legacy request for me to advocate on behalf of young families who need to know this is a preventable, treatable, and beatable disease.
This month we hosted the inaugural Get Your Rear in Gear – Little Rock (now Arkanasas). It is just one way I firmly believe that all of this tragedy will lead to triumph. I am committed to being a single mom and a role model to rally others to influence health policy change and educate others about colon cancer awareness. My daughter’s life now depends on it and Shannon knew that. All things are possible for those who believe – Mark 9:23 #living legacy