Brad Schoonmaker, Christina Rucker, and Suzie Shahan—each has a story to tell, and it’s not about the disease they have.
Rather, it’s about how they stared down cancer and in the process found new strength in themselves and a willingness to help others facing similar struggles.
Brad, 48, is the football coach at Hawley High School. Christina, 30, is an aerobics instructor and personal trainer. Suzie, 59, is retired from working as a child development specialist and director of the Children’s Performing Arts Series.
All three are married and have children. They could say that life dealt them an unfair blow. Instead, they talk about getting through, one day at a time, with the help a strong supporting cast. They praise others; from family members to people they never met, for helping them.
Here are their stories.
Family: Wife, Cindy; sons, Houston, senior; twins Travis and Jackson, sophomores; Austin, fifth-grader
Athletes are used to hearing their coach telling them never to give up.
But when boys on the Hawley Bearcats football team hear that from coach Brad Schoonmaker, they take it to heart. All they have to do is watch their coach on a daily basis and hear his story to know the true meaning of “never give up.”
Brad, the father of four sons, including twins Travis and Jackson, is in his second battle with melanoma. Now 48, Brad’s first diagnosis came in 2008, the second, two years ago. Those statistics make him an exception.
Fewer than 5 percent of patients with stage 4 melanoma like Brad’s are alive four years later to tell their story.
“No one has gone where I have,” he said.
But it’s the kind of history Brad would rather not be making. Every three months he gets checked out, alternating between Abilene and Houston for tests. He never knows when a bad test result will halt his progress once again.
Brad originally was diagnosed with a melanoma on his scalp. It was surgically removed, along with the lymph nodes in the right side of his neck. Brad was cancer-free until an examination in the summer of 2010 revealed a spot on one of his lungs.
He began chemotherapy treatments, which were repeated every three weeks during the 2010 football season.
It was during that second bout that Brad learned something vital. The first time around, he didn’t tell people. He is a private man and wanted to remain that way. But with the second diagnosis came a realization that took him out of himself.
“I realized my wife and family needed more support than I could give them,” Brad said.
That’s when he let friends, members of Highland Church of Christ, fellow coaches and teachers, even the teenagers on his football team, help him. As soon as he opened up, Brad realized the benefit. Not only did he and his family get the emotional support they needed, others benefitted from hearing Brad’s story.
“That made me feel better about talking about it,” he said.
Brad is pleased that he can be an example for his own four sons and all the athletes he works with at Hawley. Teenage boys in general, and especially football players, shy away from showing weakness or emotion.
But the young men under Brad’s guidance have learned the true meaning of being a man. Real men, Brad has taught his students, don’t try to hide things and they know when to ask for help.
That realization was especially strong when Brad was in Houston getting his second diagnosis. He literally was on the examination table when his older son, Houston, was being diagnosed in Dallas with a bone cyst.
Houston missed his sophomore year of football and was confined for a while to a wheelchair. Then, in January 2012, he suffered another setback when he had to have shoulder surgery, causing him to miss the baseball season.
“He has learned the tough lesson of perseverance along with his dad,” his mother, Cindy, said.
The good news is that Houston did not have bone cancer and that his medical setbacks have led him to want to be a doctor.
Through all of Brad and Houston’s medical challenges, the one person who has stood the tallest and strongest is Cindy, Brad said.
“She’s the unsung hero of all this,” he said.
Through his ordeal, Brad has learned another valuable lesson, one that might seem odd. He knows he is fortunate to be alive and well five years after a devastating diagnosis. He sees people all around him each time he goes for tests or treatments who may not be so fortunate.
He has learned that he can’t feel guilty about being the lucky one. To spend his life feeling guilty about being healthy would only be counter-productive.
“You’re not using the gift you’ve been given,” he said.
Brad believes he has been blessed, and he freely talks of how his faith and the faithful people around him have given him strength.
“I was a faithful person before, but that’s grown even more,” Brad said. “I’ve grown closer to God.”
Brad knows that each healthy, cancer-free day is a gift and he doesn’t waste a minute of it. He doesn’t dwell on his circumstances or spend a great deal of time worrying about what the future holds. Instead, he sees each new day as an opportunity to positively affect other people’s lives.
“Basically, I rejoice and know God has taken care of me,” Brad said, “and go on with my life.”
Family: Husband, Josh Rucker; children Jacob, 6; Eliana, 3; Simon, 6 months
A year ago, Christina Rucker’s life was about as unsettled as anyone’s could be.
In a matter of months, the joy of discovering she was pregnant with her third child had turned to disbelief and fear when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Suddenly, instead of being overjoyed at the thought of bringing a new life into the world, Christina was facing an unknown — both for herself and her unborn baby.
As events unfolded, Christina gave birth to Simon on Jan. 18, 2012. He was born healthy and happy, but not without a lot of uncertainty about both his life and the life of his mother.
Today, though, Christina prefers to dwell on the positive and enjoy life with Simon, her husband, Josh, and their two older children, Jacob, 6, and Eliana, 3.
Simon seems to know how lucky he is, and his disposition shows it.
“He is so happy,” Christina said. “He’s got smiles for everybody.”
Someday, Simon will know just how miraculous his life is. His mother will tell him about being diagnosed with cancer when she was a little over five months pregnant with him.
She will tell him about the concerns over how her treatments would affect his development. And, she will tell him about spending the first part of his life far from his home in Abilene.
The odyssey began on Sept. 30, 2011, when Christina, then 29, learned that a lump in her neck was Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“It was a shock,” she said.
She was an aerobics instructor and personal trainer at Gold’s Gym and taught Zumba classes at Abilene Country Club. She was fit, healthy, and on her way to giving birth to a third child.
Because she was pregnant, her local doctors wanted her to go to M.D. Anderson in Houston for specialized treatment. The hospital called on a Monday and wanted her in Houston on Wednesday.
All kinds of questions flooded Christina’s mind. Josh was working and going to school at Abilene Christian University, studying toward a degree in environmental science. How could they work out the logistics of going to Houston and taking care of the children?
Then, things began to fall into place. Christina’s parents live in Dallas. Her mother works for a telecommunications firm that allowed her to do her work while helping her daughter in Abilene and Houston.
A treatment plan was set up and Christina would travel back and forth to Houston as needed. Things were going as well as could be expected. But after four chemotherapy treatments, doctors noticed that fluid was building around Simon’s heart and treatment had to stop until after he was born.
Two weeks after Simon’s birth, four more treatments began, which would be followed by radiation treatments for three weeks. During that time, Christina stayed in Houston while her mother kept the children in Abilene.
Fortunately, Christina has a great-aunt and uncle who live a short distance from M.D. Anderson. Their daughter lives across the street from them and has a guest house — perfect for Christina and Simon.
“It was a blessing,” Christina said. “I was fortunate to have them.”
She also was blessed with visits from Josh and a sister who lives in Austin. And, her mother went to Houston to help during the last two weeks of treatment when the radiation was making it painful for Christina to swallow.
Through it all, little Simon did his part.
“He was really in tune with what I was needing,” Christina said.
If she needed a nap, he slept, too. If she needed to snuggle, he obliged.
Christina’s overall health and fitness no doubt helped her through the ordeal of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. In fact, she said acquaintances didn’t see much difference in her appearance expect for the tell-tale hair loss.
“Everyone looking at me had no idea, except I was bald,” she said.
Christina has learned much about life and about herself in the past year. She has learned to cherish each day with her family and friends. She has learned how truly wonderful people can be.
Her community of co-workers, friends, and members of Zion Lutheran Church have come to her rescue. People have told that the way she has faced her ordeal has impacted their lives. Anonymous donors who learned of her struggle donated money to help with travel expenses.
As for the future, Christina is optimistic. She said doctors told her the greatest likelihood of recurrence comes during the first year and diminishes with each passing year.
Life is looking hopeful again. Christina started back to work part-time in June. Simon is healthy. The family is together again.
Christina said she learned something valuable the past year. She learned that she could be hit by cancer at a young age, with a husband a family to care for, all without falling apart.
“This process has been the biggest eye-opener in my life,” she said. “I’ve learned how strong I am.”
Occupation: Former child development specialist and director of Children’s Performing Arts Series
At the time, Suzie Shahan wondered if she were being used as a guinea pig.
In the spring of 2001 when she was diagnosed with peripheral T cell lymphoma. After a year of chemotherapy treatments, she opted to undergo a stem cell transplant. That was in April 2002.
Ten years later, she’s no longer wondering about the guinea pig part.
“The cancer has not relapsed,” said Suzie, 59. “That’s the positive part.”
Listen to Suzie’s story, and you’ll hear many positives. She’s not one to dwell on negatives, choosing instead to lend a hand with Cancer Services Network or serve wherever she’s called.
“I want to be God’s hands and feet,” she said.
Long before her diagnosis, Suzie already was helping God’s children in a variety of ways. She graduated with a degree in family studies from Texas Tech University in 1975 and stayed another year for graduate studies.
While an undergraduate at Tech, she met her future husband, Abilene native Gary Shahan. He had earned a degree at the University of Texas and enrolled at Tech’s law school, finishing in 1976.
Suzie recalled that whirlwind summer of 1976. Gary took the bar exam in July, they were married the last week in August, and moved to Abilene the first week in September.
Suzie worked as a child development specialist for the state and then worked in child development for Cisco College. She later was director of the Children’s Performing Arts Series.
She and Gary are the parents of three daughters. In the spring of 2001, two daughters were still at home and the oldest, Erin, was a student at Tech.
That’s when everyone’s life turned upside down. Suzie was diagnosed with peripheral T cell lymphoma and began a year-long chemotherapy regimen. A year later she chose to undergo the stem cell transplant at Zale Lipshy in Dallas, a hospital affiliated with UT Southwestern Medical Center.
The process works like dialysis, Suzie said, with stem cells being extracted from her blood and then infused again.
The danger lies in the fact that the process wipes out the immune system, so that the body starts over. Before a new immune system is established, fighting off disease is practically impossible outside a controlled environment.
“You can get sick quickly,” Suzie said.
While Suzie was in the Dallas hospital for treatments, Gary stayed home, continuing his work and taking care of the two younger daughters who were still in Wylie schools. Emily was a senior and Amy a sophomore.
Suzie was grateful that her family members could visit. The sterile environment at the hospital made it possible for them to come into her room without wearing a mask and gown. They only had to wash their hands first.
It was the thought of her family that gave Suzie the will to try the stem cell treatment.
“I just thought, “I’ve got to try,’” she said. “I’m not a quitter.”
During her long hospital stay and recovery at home, Suzie was not surprised but was overwhelmed by the outpouring of her friends at Wylie United Methodist Church and in other circles.
“This is a very giving and loving community,” she said.
During the stem cell transplant process, Suzie was pretty much confined to the hospital but was allowed to come home for Mother’s Day and for Emily’s graduation in May 2002.
One thoughtful friend sent along copies of “I Love Lucy” reruns for Suzie to watch in her room.
“It was just the best therapy in the world,” Suzie recalled.
Suzie said during the ordeal, she didn’t experience physical pain, but the emotional toil was heavy. Nothing is harder for a mother, she said, than watching her children and husband suffer.
But from the struggle came a deeper appreciation for every moment of life. Suzie said she experienced the daily growth of her own spiritual life — and that of her family.
Being in the hospital room alone for days on end could have had a devastating effect, but Suzie said she never had felt the presence of God like she did during that time. In fact, she said, that deep spiritual experience caused her to realize a strange paradox.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” she said, “but I wouldn’t take for it, either.”