“When you are told you could die, your world stops for a moment, and in that moment you have a choice to make: You can choose life or you can choose death.” That’s the powerful message 24-year-old Cheyann Shaw posted recently on her Facebook page.
It’s been almost a year since Shaw chose life, and as she approaches the anniversary of the day that changed everything, this vivacious woman is proving to the world that she is stronger than cancer.
At age 23, Shaw was diagnosed with stage 4 low-grade serous ovarian cancer — a very rare form of ovarian cancer that affects mostly young women. This devastating news came after months of tests and multiple surgeries that resulted in the removal of her spleen, appendix, uterus and parts of her colon and bladder.
Facing Her Cancer Head-On
To say that battling cancer is the toughest thing Shaw has ever done is an understatement. But despite the ravaging effects of her cancer and treatment, this fearless young woman gets up each morning, looks in the mirror and tells herself: “I can’t be defeated — I can do this.”
Shaw often describes her journey to others as beautiful and sometimes terrifying. She says that when you battle cancer — or any challenge in your life — you discover your true self.
For Shaw, this discovery meant finding out just how strong she really is. Before her diagnosis, Shaw was at the top of her fitness game. Her physical strength was obvious, but it was her mental strength that would soon surprise her. “When you get told you have cancer, being mentally strong is the hardest part,” she says.
And it’s this sheer mental toughness and tenacity that now pushes Shaw to challenge her body’s limits. “When I lost a lot of my muscle and my weight dropped down to 97 pounds, I was a wreck both mentally and emotionally,” Shaw says, adding that she felt when she no longer recognized the person in the mirror.
But instead of feeling defeated, Shaw used these feelings to motivate her through several rounds of chemo and, most recently, when she headed back to the gym.
Getting Back Into the Gym
Even though working out has always been a part of Shaw’s life, her fitness journey and goals have changed since battling cancer. She now works out 45 minutes a day, three to four times a week with a set program. This is in sharp contrast to her workouts before her diagnosis, when she was spending several hours in the gym — five to six days a week — often just winging it.
Shaw says her workouts are still as intense as before, but she now limits herself to only five to eight reps per set (compared to 10 to 12 reps prior to diagnosis) with a three to four-minute break between each set instead of a one-minute break.
This allows her body enough time to rest and recover. “I used to push my body to its absolute limits when it came to training, but now I listen to my body a lot more. I know when I’ve had enough,” she says.
Her strength is slowly coming back, and she describes feeling overjoyed with happiness each time she looks in the mirror. “I am no longer sad when I see my reflection because I see someone who is not only beating cancer, but I see a body that is stronger than it was before: I see a body of a warrior and a survivor.”
Living by her new workout mantra — “Fitness is a journey, not a destination” — Shaw encourages others to treat their fitness journeys as their own and not to compare themselves to others. “My biggest struggle was looking at my old pictures from when I was in shape and comparing what I look like now to what I used to look like.” It has taken Shaw a while to move past these comparisons, but she has learned to love her body just the way it is.
This eternal optimism has become a daily dose of inspiration for Shaw’s 250,000 Instagram followers. Her positive and limitless outlook on life is reflected in the motivating words she tells followers: “I may not be as strong as I used to be, but all that matters is that I’m getting up and getting active…. I’m not letting cancer stop me from what I love to do.”
Looking to the Future
Currently, Shaw’s condition is considered stable. The results of her last PET scans show no evidence of disease, and if her next scan comes back clear, she will stay on maintenance chemo for the rest of her life.
So what exactly does the “rest of her life” entail? Shaw says she wants to continue to spread her story and show the world that being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t mean you have to stop living your life.
“Not a day goes by that you won’t see a smile on my face or hear me laughing, because I no longer want to let life rush past me,” Shaw says.