By Jenny Neyman
Crystal Sholin has been through a lot of ups and downs in her three bouts with cancer over the past seven years.
They’ve been mostly downs, especially counting the string of family tragedies she’s endured during that period, including the death of her son last spring. But in a way, all the stress, pain and heartache she’s suffered makes the good times, support and moments of happiness that much more meaningful. Now that she’s recovering from a particularly nasty recurrence of the disease, she’s determined to share some of the kindness she’s enjoyed during her bumpy road with others struggling through their cancer journey. To do so, she’s put her figurative two cents of an idea into action, and hopes others donate their literal change in return. Sholin, 39, a parent of a Soldotna High School student, started a Coins 4 Cancer project with the school about a month ago. A 5-gallon jug donated by Alaska’s Best Water sits on the counter at the school’s office most days, where anyone coming by can drop in whatever coins are rattling around their pockets. During school events, including sports games, the jug is moved out to the admission area.
All proceeds will be donated to the cancer fund at Central Peninsula Hospital, which awards grants to local people undergoing cancer treatment to help them with expenses.
In just barely a month, Sholin estimates the jug has accumulated a couple hundred dollars. She’s hoping the program will continue next year, and possibly grow to Skyview and Kenai high schools, as well.
“It is amazing. In just the few weekends that it has been set out at basketball games how much money we already have. And people are putting ones, fives and 10-dollar bills in there, so it’s awesome. They just see the label and they’re just dropping money in,” Sholin said.
Todd Syverson, principal at SoHi, said the program was a good one for the school to be involved in.
“We have several families at Soldotna High School battling with cancer right now. We wanted to do our part to try to help our local families,” Syverson said. “The expenses are astronomical when one’s battling cancer. A lot of times insurance may cover part of it but there are other expenses. The cool thing about this particular program is we’re able to gather these coins and it’s going to stay right here on the peninsula and help these families battling with cancer.”
He said even visiting teams and spectators have chipped in to donate, as well as locals.
“What’s neat is watching a student or a parent donate, and we’ve got a lot of folks who just like to come to activities, whether it’s a drama production or sporting event,” he said. “It’s neat to see what a generous community we live in, and what a giving community we are. I know I, personally, am very thankful to live in a community like that.”
Sholin said she’s happy to give back to the community that’s given so much to her, and having something proactive and positive to do helps take her mind off the negatives.
“This way I don’t sit and stress about things, because if I have too much downtime I really find myself thinking about my son and slipping into a depression. Not fun,” she said. “So if I’m here by myself I just become a blubbering idiot. I need to get out of the house and get something to do. I figured this would be a way to repay people for all of the stuff that they’ve done for me.”
Sholin has plenty to take her mind off of these days. Her life — married to her high school sweetheart, Steve, with daughter, Kaili, and lots of family and friends still living in the Soldotna area from which they graduated high school — started veering off track in 2002 when she noticed an indentation on her right breast. She was 32 at the time, with no family history of breast cancer, but she was diagnosed with an early stage of breast cancer.
Being a naturalist, Sholin chose to take an all-natural course of medication to fight the cancer. She said it worked well — regular checkups and blood tests showed the cancer had disappeared and she was feeling better. So much better that she stopped taking the medication.
“I’m a great starter of things and not a finisher,” Sholin said. “When I started feeling pretty good I stopped taking all my stuff. Almost exactly 12 months later it came back bigger and badder than ever.”
This was in 2003, and she was sent to Washington to do a full PET scan to detect if and where the cancer had spread. It found multiple lumps in her right breast. Sholin decided to have a double mastectomy at that point, in the hope that would be the end of the cancer.
“I chose to take both off. It’s such a high probability within the next couple years if you have it in one that it will come back to the next one. … Most people choose reconstructive surgery anyway, and the healing time and pain and everything is really not doubled so there’s no reason not to take both of them off, because if and when it comes back you have to have the other one off.”
She followed surgery with a course of Chinese herbs meant to combat cancer and keep red blood cell counts up, as well as a course of chemotherapy where she had to fly to Seattle every two weeks for six months. All but one of her 12 flights were paid for by the Angel Flight program, and for the one that wasn’t, a manager at the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center donated her frequent flier miles to Sholin to cover the ticket. Following that, Sholin traveled back and forth to Anchorage every day for five weeks for radiation treatments.
After that was periodic blood tests and scans, but doctors gave her an all clear from cancer. That didn’t extend to the rest of her life, however.
In December 2007 she started losing family members who were close to her, starting with her grandfather in northern Idaho, where she had grown up. When she was getting back to the central peninsula from that trip, her stepmother had a heart attack during a business trip to Anchorage with Sholin’s father, and the family made the heart-wrenching decision two days later to take her off life support.
A few months later, in May 2008, her 19-year-old son, Ryan, was killed in a car crash on Gaswell Road.
In July, her cancer came back, this time to her lungs. She and her husband were hosting an annual get-together with friends over the Fourth of July, and Sholin found herself too short of breath and tired to participate much in the gathering.
“I’d normally just make sure everybody had enough to eat and were set up to sleep. I could hardly breathe. I’d find myself sitting inside half the day and going to bed at 9 o’clock at night and not worrying that other people would have to clean up and stuff,” she said.
The cancer was growing on the outside of her left lung. Her body was producing fluid to try to flush out the cancer, but the fluid was building up in the pleura lining surrounding her lung. With nowhere to drain to, the excess fluid pushed against the lung and collapsed it.
Her doctor removed a liter and a half of fluid, then went in the next day when Sholin was still feeling awful and took out another liter and a half. A doctor in Anchorage did surgery on the lung to prevent further fluid buildup, but there was no way to remove the tumor itself. Sholin was told the best she could do was chemotherapy to wipe out the growth this time, and again if it came back — which it probably would.
“The tumor was inoperable. With all of the stress with losing all of the family, all of a sudden finding out that my cancer is treatable, not curable, that it will continue to come back for the rest of my life. I was just overwhelmed. I said I need some downtime before I start all of the cancer treatment,” she said.
The Sholins’ 20th anniversary was coming up in September. They had talked about going to Jamaica to celebrate. Sholin asked her doctors if they thought it would be OK if she took a two-week trip before starting treatment. They didn’t think the cancer was that aggressive, so they said fine — but no scuba diving.
“I said, ‘OK, snorkeling’s just fine.’”
But near the end of the trip her breathing problems came back. She got home and she and Steve took their daughter, Kaili, to Anchorage for her 16th birthday, but Sholin ended up at Alaska Regional Hospital on Monday morning, to find she had another collapsed lung and the cancer had spread.
“It was more aggressive than any of the doctors thought. It ended up not being just in my lungs but was in the P7 vertebra, in my diaphragm and lymphatic system. It was more like vines than lumps, just kind of smashing things in there and I was unable to breathe,” she said.
Sholin started radiation on her vertebra while she was still in the hospital, and another round of chemo. A CAT scan in December showed the cancer had shrunk so much that she’s finishing up chemo this week. She’s feeling better and her breath capacity has grown, although she’s fighting fatigue and will for some time. But now she’s got some breathing room, which she hopes will last for a long time to come. She plans to research Chinese herbs and any other alternative, natural treatments she can find.
“What they say is it’s inevitable it will come back, just everybody is different,” Sholin said. “One person was only off chemo for a month, other people stretched it out for like two years. Still, I just think, God, every two years for the rest of my life to do chemo, and I’m only 39 now. That doesn’t sound fun to me.”
Rather than watch the clock or dwell on her prognosis, Sholin decided to take action. She’s received support from the Central Peninsula Hospital cancer fund, Angel Flight, Soroptimists and friends who organized a fundraising dinner and auction in her name. Sholin wanted to return the favor.
After her first go-around with cancer, she started a business, called Move to Live, where she turned the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon image into a running figure and had it put on clothing, hats, coffee cups and other items, to donate 10 percent of sales to cancer research and Angel Flight. With Coins for Cancer, the proceeds benefit the hospital’s cancer fund.
In turn, those organizations will help many more people like Sholin and the friends and family who have helped support her.
“I don’t think there’s probably one person that hasn’t been affected by cancer somehow,” she said.