The Toll of Hope

Customer Service Representative Battles Stage Four Brain Cancer

When Shelby Stueber’s fiancé, David Espinosa, asked her to marry him in 2020, cancer was the last thing on her mind, but, in reality, cancer was exactly what was on her brain. What she thought would be a year of wedding planning and investing in her new career at Sanderson Farms, quickly became grappled with a diagnosis she was not sure she could face.

In only six days, Stueber would go from celebrating her engagement to realizing she had brain cancer. “I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me considering I felt on top of the world just days before,” said Stueber. At only 22 years old, she began preparing for cancer treatment during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I had severe headaches for about three days,” said Stueber. “They were the type of headaches where I couldn’t think or talk while they were happening. For someone who rarely had headaches or migraines their entire life, I knew something wasn’t right.”

It was upon a visit to her local emergency room that doctors performed a computed tomography scan on her head that would identify a mass the size of a kiwi pushing against her brain stem. “I was diagnosed with the brain tumor on March 13, 2020 – Friday the 13th,” shared Stueber.

Although the possibility for her tumor to be benign was highly probable, Stueber found herself being rushed into emergency surgery only ten days after her diagnosis. Pathologists determined she had a fast-growing malignant brain tumor known as a medulloblastoma. In simpler terms, she had stage four brain cancer.

Rare as it was for Stueber to be diagnosed with what was characteristically an adolescent disease, she soon found herself at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas awaiting treatment shortly after the tumor was surgically removed. According to MD Anderson, “in adults, medulloblatoma is rare, but it’s not rare to our multidisciplinary teams at the Anne C. Brooke Brain and Spine Center.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic surging across the nation, she was left to face treatment alone due to the hospital’s safety protocols. “I may have been 23 years old, but I still needed my momma,” said Stueber. Each appointment meant facing six weeks of daily proton therapy followed by multiple cycles of chemotherapy all by herself.

“It hurts so much as a parent, knowing there’s nothing you can do,” said Stueber’s mother, Cindy. Between her parents and her fiancé, they would rotate taking her to appointments, which explains why Stueber lovingly refers to them as her “heroes.” “Knowing they couldn’t go inside with me, they would sit in the car and wait for me to be done – no matter how long it took. I couldn’t have done it without them,”
said Stueber.

As a customer service representative for Sanderson Farms’ Bryan, Texas processing facility, Stueber had not been with the company a full year before being diagnosed with cancer. “Working was the one thing that made me feel normal throughout my cancer journey,” said Stueber. “You don’t realize how much you miss normalcy until your life flips upside down.”

Raised on a farm in La Grange, Texas, Stueber was immersed in agriculture and farming from an early age. “Agriculture has always been a part of my life and is very important to me,” said Stueber. “I honestly never would have thought that chickens would be the center of my career, but here we are.”

As a poultry science graduate from Texas A&M University with a background in 4-H and Future Farmers of America, serving as a woman in the agriculture industry is well ingrained in Stueber’s life and affords her a career she regards as “bigger than myself.” Her story with cancer, however, brought a perspective to her career that became larger than life.

While receiving treatment, Stueber never missed a day of work, even when she worked from home throughout her treatment process. “I actually looked forward to working even if it was from home because not only did it take my mind off of things, but I somewhat felt normal again,” said Stueber. “Once those six weeks [of proton therapy] were over, I came back to the office to work full-time.”

Stueber was sure to schedule her appointments for chemotherapy treatment strategically in order to reduce any conflicts with work. “It was the least I could do for the support my Sanderson family was giving me throughout this awful season in my life,” said Stueber. “I have the privilege of working with some amazing people.” To her, the support of her customers and coworkers made a significant impact on her ability to move forward with her cancer treatment.

In December 2020, Stueber found herself standing in the lobby of MD Anderson once again. This time, it felt quite different than it did when she was first admitted to the hospital. After a dozen magnetic resonance imaging scans to determine how her body reacted to chemotherapy, her doctors declared her “cancer free.”

When only nine months prior she had envisioned wedding bells ringing, she was now celebrating with a tradition many MD Anderson patients have experienced and many dream of partaking in. “Ring this bell, three times well. It’s toll to clearly say, ‘my treatment’s done, this course is run, and I am on my way,’” sang Stueber as she rang the famous celebratory bell in front of her closest friends and family members.

“A lot of people have asked me how it feels to be done with cancer,” recalls Stueber. “It feels great to be done with treatment, but, unfortunately, the thing about cancer is that it’s never really over.”

As she plans her upcoming wedding, Stueber continues to schedule appointments for more bloodwork, tests and scans to see how she is progressing during remission. Her hope is that her story plays a role in providing hope to others who may be enduring a difficult season of life or a healthy journey of
their own.

“Whatever painful thing you are going through will change you, there is no doubt about that,” said Stueber. “Let it change you for the better. Let it make you stronger, smarter and kinder than you were before. You are closer than you were the day before, and that is something worth celebrating.”