Cav spouse emerges victorious from personal struggle
May 29, 2014
FORT HOOD, Texas -- With every step and every lap around the track at Robert M. Shoemaker High School in Killeen, Texas, one 1st Cavalry Division spouse closed an arduous and emotional chapter of her life.
After a yearlong struggle with cancer, Shawna Niles, wife of Lt.Col. Rolland Niles, the 1st Cavalry Division deputy chief of staff, is cancer-free. At the track, she took several victory laps as part of the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life fundraising event May 3.
"I got diagnosed June 6 last year," said Shawna, a native of Decatur, Illinois. "It's been about a year or two that they've been watching a spot and said there was nothing, but my gut and God just told me that there was something wrong."
After an MRI, an ultrasound and a biopsy, Shawna was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was at the Spirit of Fort Hood Chapel doing her work as the Protestant Women of the Church president when she got the call and immediately went to tell her husband.
"I drove right over to his office to tell him and . . . Chaplain (Addison) Burgess (the then-division chaplain) was in the parking lot," she said. "I couldn't contain myself to go find him, so he escorted me up to his office to take me to him, so I could tell him."
"It was a surprise," said Rolland, a native of Avon, Illinois. "I knew she was having the test, but you always hope that it's going to be negative. I didn't think she would have cancer."
The fight against the cancer immediately began in earnest.
In July, she had surgery to remove cancer from the breast.
"A week later, they found out that they didn't get all the cancer, and they did another surgery a week later to remove the cancer . . ." Shawna said.
The doctors then started chemotherapy in August and radiation in February.
"I felt so horrible I thought I was going to die," she said.
She attributes the strength she mustered to come through her ordeal to an extensive support system.
"It's been tough," she said. "Not being able to take care of my family, do my duties as a wife. It's been tough, but the Cav Family was very gracious to help us. The wives made meals once a week to twice a week . . . Just a lot of support from the wives."
Even after struggling to regain her health and confessing to the difficulty of that struggle, Shawna said, "The hardest part was everybody having to wait on me."
"As a wife, you never want to be the person that holds your husband back from his career," Shawna said. "You feel like, 'I can't let this bleed into his work.' Col. (Robert) Akam (former First Team chief of staff) said to me at his farewell, 'You are first now.'"
Shawna has been an Army spouse for 17 of Rolland's 21 years in uniform.
"It was time to give back," Rolland said. "The family makes sacrifices for the Soldier, so it was my opportunity to make sacrifices for her. The command group was very flexible in giving me the time I needed to get away for chemo. I mean, she would be there for three and a half to four hours plugged up to machines."
Sometime in January, the idea occurred to Shawna to participate in Relay for Life. She polled her friends to see if anyone would support her. She said she didn't think she could go do it alone, because she still suffers from some side effects of her treatment, like nerve damage and fatigue. Her church family and friends rallied behind her.
Relay for Life is the American Cancer Society's community fundraising event, during which teams camp out overnight with at least one member of each team on the track at all times for up to 24 hours.
For Rolland, getting to see all the survivors served as a testament to the possibility of survival.
"Coming here, you get to see everybody else," Rolland said. "It just reinforces that you can survive. These are all success stories that you see walking around here."
Not so long ago, she couldn't even get out of bed, but back at the track and before the walk began, Shawna couldn't stay put. She was busy setting up her tent and arranging decorations. She darted all around, asking people if they needed anything, taking care of people, and trying to give back to some of those who helped her during her journey.
Hundreds turned out for the relay. For Shawna, participating helped bring closure in her battle.
"I think I needed to be here today to say it's done," Shawna said, "to shut the door, to close it, to say I can move on."