“Sometimes life catches one by surprise….”
That was Sheila McKee’s first journal entry after finding out she had advanced, stage 3 ovarian cancer 28 months ago. Recently, McKee was the keynote speaker for the Relay for Life Evening of Hope Dinner and Fashion Show event, held at First Baptist Church Statesboro.
The Evening of Hope event was sponsored by First Baptist’s Relay for Life team and the church’s women’s ministry, but all area churches were invited to the event. Models for the fashion show were cancer survivors — from breast to ovarian to cervical to colon — from churches throughout the community, ranging in age from 6 to much older than 6 and from an 11-month survivor of ovarian cancer to a 36-year survivor of Hodgkin’s Disease.
The dinner and show was held in honor of Lynda Williamson, who lost her battle with peritoneal cancer in November 2014 after a three-year fight. Guests were treated to a video of Williamson, where she shared candidly about her life, family and journey with cancer.
“My doctor said it was the most aggressive form of ovarian cancer, and he would treat it as aggressively as possible,” McKee said during her keynote address. “What made the diagnosis more terrifying to me was the fact that my grandmother had died of this same ovarian cancer some 35 years earlier, and those memories lingered in my mind.”
McKee and her husband, Don, were blindsided by the diagnosis.
“I never in a million years would have dreamed that cancer could happen to me,” said McKee, who was 49 at the time she was diagnosed.
But McKee said she could trace God’s hand and felt his presence from the very beginning of the ordeal.
McKee is the keyboard ministry director at First Baptist Church and a former Bulloch Academy music teacher. She said her first symptom was a pain in her right side.
“I sensed from the start that God wanted me to not be silent, and I found my voice journaling online,” she said.
Still, she said, she felt out of control, powerless and afraid.
“The Lord gave a passage of scripture to me as our roadmap for this journey,” she said.
It was from 1 Peter 5:6–10: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, casting your care upon him, for he cares for you. … But may the God of all grace, who called us to his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, strengthen, and settle you.”
McKee faced surgery, chemotherapy and chemo drugs.
“One good thing about a cancer diagnosis is that it completely changes your perspective on everything, and you view people and relationships in a whole new light,” she said. “You realize that people are what really matters in life.
“Cancer also reminds one to live fully in the moment. I’ve lived my life worrying about the past and fretting about the future instead of savoring the moments of the present.
“I think about God. God is fully present in each of our moments,” she continued. “I want to learn to live fully aware of him and be mindful of my utter dependence on him as if he were my very breath.”
McKee held up a basket of cards she’d received during her cancer illness and thanked those in the audience for innumerable kindnesses, gifts and prayers.
“The most beautiful part of my story has been experiencing the body of Christ — the church,” she said. “In my spiritual eyes, I have been able to see the Holy Spirit through the countless actions of others. You may have thought you were just dropping by potato soup or popsicles or a scented candle, but unknowingly, you were being a vessel of the Holy Spirit and ministering the love of the Lord to me.”
The fashion show models came from all walks of life, in different recovery phases and from varying denominations. Donna Baldwin, member of the Original First African Baptist Church, was diagnosed with cervical cancer on Good Friday of 2001 and then colon cancer in 2008.
“I was more at peace the second time because I had built that faith with God,” Baldwin said.
Little Anna Hays Polk, who attends First United Methodist Church with her family, was diagnosed with leukemia on her third birthday and had treatment for 27 months, receiving 18 blood transfusions.
Jenny Purvis, an eighth-grade special education teacher at William James Middle School, is a one-year ovarian cancer survivor. Purvis said the inspiration for her cancer journey was her daughter, Mae, who struggled as a premature baby. She said that Mae inspired her to “fight like a girl.”
The evening adjourned with models, other survivors and audience participants inspired with hope for cancer journeys ahead.