When Cancer Got Big, God Got Bigger!: My Journey With Mesothelioma logo

The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance would like to take a moment to introduce an amazing mesothelioma survivor – Rachel Shaneyfelt, our Advocate of the Month for July. Read below for Rachel’s personal battle with mesothelioma and how it has changed her life. She is excited to offer hope and support to those facing similar challenges as our advocate and in the future as the newest addition to our community!


My name is Rachel Shaneyfelt and on April 1, 2011 I was diagnosed with Mesothelioma. My life changed in an instant and unfortunately it was not an April fool’s joke. Now, I grew up Christian and considered myself a good normal person with normal problems. I was 43 years old, newly divorced, and had decided to go back to graduate school to obtain my Masters in nursing. I thought to have had my life and dreams in perspective. My dreams were to graduate as a family nurse practitioner, possibly open up a clinic in my small town here in Alabama, and help those who were unable to afford health care. The first semester of school I experienced those dreams falling apart. It was like the unraveling of beautiful fabric, but I was about to seriously dance a beautiful dance with the maker.

My symptoms began on October 31, 2010. My left side felt as though I was sleeping on a walnut with a painful area on my ribcage. Soon thereafter I began having night sweats and shortness of breath. I was treated with two rounds of antibiotics with the assumption that I had developed pneumonia. Now I must say that I did get better with the antibiotics. Blood tests did show that I had been exposed to mycoplasma pneumonia, and the cough did ease up. It was a true blessing to have been exposed to pneumonia; otherwise I would not have obtained my initial chest x-ray. I was attributing my 40-pound weight loss to the 1200-calorie diet I was on, along with an increase in exercise. You see, my New Year’s resolution for 2011 was to run my first 5k marathon. Little did I know that God was getting me in shape for a whole different kind of race.

While pressing onward with my studies, I was in my second semester of school and still observing that I had ongoing night sweats. Being a nurse I knew that something was not right, and knowing I was on hormone replacement this should not be the average menopausal hot flash or night sweat. It was during a live, on campus, physical check off that my classmate, and long time friend, stated to me “Rachel, you don’t have any breath sounds on your left side”. I told her something must be wrong with her stethoscope and advised her to continue on. She put the stethoscope in my own ears…and she was right, there were no breath sounds…none.

My older brother being a seasoned registered nurse was my next call. We had our conversations and pep talks, but the best advice he gave me was “it’s just another x-ray, don’t let something like this fall through the cracks, and just go do it!” I still never thought cancer. Working as a nurse at a university hospital, all I kept thinking was “Oh Lord, what if I have contracted TB!!! YIKES”. So off I went and scheduled another chest x-ray that ended me up in a radiological office for a CT scan. I recall being so scared and was quickly trying to update my Facebook status via iPhone, trying to get people to pray and becoming aggravated because of the lack of a signal.

After having a CT scan, I was sent back to my physician’s office and I recall sitting in the parking lot unable to go in. Not out of physical pain, but out of an overwhelming emotion of just knowing that it was something…. something…. just something. I never thought that something would be called mesothelioma. My doctor called my cell phone wondering where I might be, then came and met me at the door. My life was no longer what I wanted it to be BUT, my life was everything it was meant to be. The call to my mom was the hardest. Regardless of how old I was, I was still her baby. The shakiness in her voice, the way she tried to say it was all going to be all right. The deal is when you get cancer, everyone who loves you gets cancer too.

From the doctor’s office I contacted my school preceptor, Dr. David Gettinger of The Kirklin Clinic – one of the most amazing physicians I have had the privilege to follow. I was a deer in the headlights and did not know where to turn. Dr. Gettinger insisted that I bring the CT to him and have his group of radiologist look at it. The rocking back and forth in his chair as he rubbed his forehead, I will never forget that moment. He then hand delivered my CT to world renowned Dr. Robert Cerfolio, thoracic surgeon for the University of Alabama Birmingham, who evaluated my situation and proceeded with a biopsy that led to a very intensive surgical procedure.

After the removal of my left hemi-diaphragm, my left pleura with a lung resection, and my pericardium, I underwent chemotherapy. Now let me tell you, chemo puts you in a place that only God can hear your inner voice of prayer. There were times that I could only utter the name Jesus. I took 18 weeks, 6 treatments (one every 3 weeks) of Cisplatin and Alimta. I was fortunate to not have lost my hair, although I shed a lot and my hair thinned out a great deal. I guess God knew that my face would look like a horse if I lost my hair, so He granted me a huge favor. Every treatment sent me through an emotional time. I would wake up and the cross that was on my bedpost would be clanging against the post, literally from my heartbeat. I came to realize that my heart was no longer protected in the shell of the pericardium and it was now surrounded with a mesh like product. I now have reflux because the diaphragm is reconstructed and have developed a small hiatal hernia. My body all together is shaped different. I have scars from the thoracotomy and star like punctures from 5 chest tubes that kind of reminds me of the Big Dipper. Looking at them now are just reminders of where I WAS and not where I AM today.

I graduated on May 18th along with my classmates, right on schedule. On May 23rd I was told that my cancer was back and had a new lesion. On May 24th I went to a faith healing service and put my cancer on the mercies of God. On May 31, 2012, I was in the surgeon’s office after my PET scan, who instructed me that not only was my cancer stable but that I had improved since January and no surgery was needed as I was in clinical remission. GOD IS BIGGER!!!! Cancer did not take my determination, it increased it. Cancer did not take my dreams, it made them more vivid. Cancer did not take my life, it made me appreciate what and who was in it. Cancer did not take away my courage, it allowed God to make me more than a conqueror. When cancer got big, GOD got BIGGER! I have accepted a job as a Family Nurse Practitioner at UAB in the Bone Marrow Transplant, where I plan on spreading the word HOPE to cancer patients!!! God Bless You Guys!