Wearing a strapless, soft baby blue dress with delicate beading, 16-year-old Shelby Matthews dances with her friends and brothers to radio hits inside a dimly lit room at Harrisonville Community Center as colored lights hit the floor.
Moments later, Matthews whisks across the floor in her flowing prom-style gown as she chats with her party guests. She then takes a moment to sit down and enjoy a soda, flaunting a tiara sitting elegantly on a bob-cut style wig she picked out for the party.
The mood was festive, but somewhat somber, as in the last six months and 18 days, Matthews’ has been fighting for more than just the typical rites of passage of teenage-hood.
Matthews has been fighting cancer, and her one wish for her 16th birthday was to be a princess for a day.
With the day approaching, Sherry Giles decided to throw her daughter a birthday bash Dec. 28 – in hopes that for at least one day, or at the very least, an afternoon, Matthews could forget about the toll that cancer has taken on other aspects of her life.
“She’s been through hell for six months, she deserves it,” Giles said.
Area businesses chipped in where they could help to make the day extra special.
Joni’s Fashion in Harrisonville loaned Matthews the dress; a Lee’s Summit bakery, Tweedle Dee, provided a three-tier cake through an organization called “Cakes against Cancer.”
The community center gave the family a discount, MooDaddy DJ provided the entertainment, and Sonic donated ice and beverages.
Family members helped with decorations.
As the party continued, Matthews takes photos with her family, friends and other guests before she gets back on the dance floor.
There were presents and cake, too, waiting.
Matthews was diagnosed with lymphoma June 10 after she displayed symptoms of a bad case of strep for more than two months.
The “strep” had become so bad Matthews could barely eat or keep food down, losing 40 pounds within a matter of weeks.
“I couldn’t swallow anything but they kept saying I was fine,” Matthews said in July. “I mean I was getting better, only because we later learned the steroids they gave me for my ‘strep' was shrinking the tumors.”
After a fainting episode, Matthews was taken to St. Luke’s East Hospital in Lee’s Summit for a CT scan.
After the scan, Matthews was placed in a room with her dad as they awaited an answer. Her mother was still at work.
“The doctor came in and didn't even hesitate and looked right at my dad and says, ‘She might have lymphoma,’” Matthews recalled. “I was shocked. I didn't know what lymphoma was. I felt like my heart had stopped there at the hospital. I was hyperventilating, crying and screaming.”
Matthews was immediately rushed from St. Luke’s to Children’s Mercy Hospital by ambulance for more tests, and doctors later determined her cancer was in the form of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
“My first reaction was, ‘What is lymphoma?” I didn’t know what it was, and when a lady told me it was cancer, I lost it. I never dreamed in a million years that your kid would have cancer,” Giles said in July, with tears in her eyes.
Doctors found at least 15 tumors in Matthews’ body.
Among the tumors doctors found, Matthews had a six-inch wide tumor in her chest that was pressing on her heart and slowly closing the airway to her right lung.
Tumors also were found in her brain, in both ears, spleen, liver and in both kidneys. Matthews has been in remission since mid-July as the multiple tumors have either shrunk or gone away, but has to continue chemotherapy treatments for two years.
“We’re still going strong,” Giles said.
Matthews’ last treatment is scheduled for Oct. 8, 2015. Studies have shown the more treatment a patient gets with this type of cancer, the chance of it returning is reduced, so doctors at Children’s Mercy continue to aggressively fight the effects of the disease.
Matthews receives a variety of chemo treatment up to two or three times a week.
Upon checking into the oncology floor at the hospital Dec. 20, nurses took Matthews’ vitals, including her height, weight and temperature, before taking a blood sample to check her absolute neutrophil count levels.
ANC numbers reflect a patient’s immunologic status in response to chemotherapy. Matthews needs to be at 750 for the medical staff to give her chemo.
With her birthday party nearing just days away, Matthews and her mother were hoping the ANC numbers would be high so she wouldn’t have to wear a surgical mask during the celebration. The mask is used to help keep Matthews from picking up a flu bug or being exposed to germs from someone with a cold.
On this particular trip to the hospital, Matthews was scheduled to get a spinal tap, a test to evaluate the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and several variations of chemo.
While Matthews and her mom sit in the hospital room waiting for the test results and for the doctor to perform the procedure, she spends time doodling in a One Direction notebook and watching YouTube videos on her cell phone.
“They’re real hot,” Matthews says of the guys in 1D, a popular boy band among teen girls.
Matthews energy levels were high, and she was feeling good on this December day.
Nurses and child life advocates stop by to check on Matthews. During the appointment, Matthews chats about Christmas, her birthday that falls on Dec. 26, and her upcoming Sweet 16 party.
“I think I’m more excited about her birthday than Christmas,” Giles said during the appointment.
Occasionally, Matthews, when she is feeling well enough, will even go out to the nurses’ station to talk to them about what’s new in her life – or to show them her newest favorite music video.
“When’s she really bored, she’ll go out and pick on the nurses,” Giles said.
After about an hour of waiting, Matthews finds out that she made the counts, 940, to be exact. Matthews gave a high five to her mom as they both express their relief.
A few minutes later, Matthews’ doctor steps in and examines her. He also takes time to watch a video on her phone, a way of connecting with his patients.
Before stepping out of the room, the doctor goes over Matthews’ chemo plan for the next several weeks and makes mention about beginning radiation near the end of January.
Radiation will consist of five to seven days of continuous treatment.
Matthews’ natural blonde hair fell out during the early stages of her cancer treatment. While it has slowly started to grow back, radiation will likely cause her to lose it again.
In going over her schedule of appointments, the doctor reminds Matthews that she’ll need to come in again on Christmas Eve, and again, on the day before her party.
“Cancer doesn't get a holiday,” Matthews remarks.
After a little more waiting, the doctor and nurses come back into Matthews’ room to begin the chemo and procedure.
Matthews is instructed to lay on her right side, facing a wall, as the doctor begins to insert a needle into her spine to collect the fluid for testing. Giles holds her daughter’s hand tight.
The doctor also inserts a dose of chemo into the same area as the nurses began preparing the port on her chest for additional drugs.
After the doctor bandages the site on her back, the lights are turned off inside Matthews’ hospital room as she rests while the remaining chemo is pumped into her body.
At one point during the treatment, a nurse drops in with a small Christmas gift for Matthews – a purse filled with girly gifts – including a pair of socks, nail polish, and a puzzle book.
Matthews is quickly drained of the energy that she had felt earlier in the day, and after the treatment is through, she gets into a hospital wagon for her mother to use to transport her back to the family’s car.
Another treatment is finished and she’s one step closer to better health.
During the week of Christmas, Matthews spurred an idea to send some holiday love to other children who are in the hospital next year on Christmas.
Matthews has begun collecting Christmas stockings that she will then use to fill with small gifts for children. She’s calling it the “Stuff it to Cancer” project.
She hopes the community also would get involved in helping donate extra stockings and stocking stuffers. Individuals who would be interested in making a donation toward the project should leave a message on the Shelby’s Fight Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ShelbysFight).
“I love stockings and I want to give every little kid a stocking full of toys and stuff,” Matthews wrote on her Facebook page. “I was hoping to have enough stuff for every kid and then some. So, I hope you guys can help.”