A nurse and military veteran used to tough situations, Shannon's cancer diagnosis tested her like nothing else had before
As a registered nurse, Shannon Davila is no stranger to illness.
Early in her career, she worked in an intensive care unit, tending to the sickest of the sick—people hovering at the brink of death.
And while she provided them with compassionate and diligent care, she couldn't imagine being in their place.
She was in excellent health, and thriving in her career. Her interest in healthcare had begun while in the Air Force: She worked in a microbiology lab in Germany for several years. After completing her service, she paid her way through nursing school with the help of the GI Bill.
In her 30s, after less than a decade at the bedside, she transitioned into an administrative role focused on patient safety and infection prevention. As chance would have it, her grandmother had also worked in a similar capacity generations earlier, before much was known about infection transmission. She would review the patients' daily temperature charts and try to figure out why some were spiking fevers.
"I really got to see her love of nursing," Shannon explained. "It was, I guess, 'in the family.'"
There was something else, too, lurking in her family tree, that Shannon had always been vaguely aware of but not too concerned about. Her other grandmother—on the paternal side—had had breast cancer at an early age and undergone a mastectomy. The family didn't know much more about her diagnosis, except that the cancer returned 20 years later, metastatic, after which she lived just two years, dying at age 62.
"That was always in my mind," Shannon said. "I just had this—I don't want to say a premonition—but I just had a feeling like if I was gonna get something, that would be what I would get."
"So I was not surprised, actually, when I found the lump."
She felt a "peanut-sized" mass just under the skin of her right breast. At first, she paid it little heed.
Due to her family history, Shannon had started annual mammography early, at age 40. Her second mammogram, at 42, had revealed a non-specific abnormality in her left breast—common in younger women and often due to dense breast tissue. A follow-up ultrasound was not concerning, and she was advised to continue with her yearly exams.
Just five months later, while putting on a dress, she felt a "peanut-sized" mass just under the skin of her right breast. At first, she paid it little heed, assuming it was the anomaly the mammogram had detected—old news, she thought, already checked out and cleared by her doctors.
She had a physical coming up, so she figured she would mention it then. It was her primary care doctor who corrected her—her right breast had actually looked completely normal on her recent mammogram, and this lump was definitely new. The nervous concern in her doctor's voice made Shannon uneasy.
"It shook me a little bit, because I had been pretty casual about it up until that moment," Shannon remembers. "But that was sort of a reality moment for me, like 'Oh, OK, we're doing this now. This is happening.'"
Her doctor sent her for another ultrasound. Shannon recalls a radiologist walking into the room afterwards and telling her that something "didn't look right" on her scan, and that she would need a biopsy—"ASAP."
She was at work in the late afternoon when she got the call. It was cancer. There were still more tests to be done, but she had breast cancer. She cried, briefly. "This was the first moment that I felt like I kind of lost it a little bit," she said. "It was just like this feeling of doom for a minute."
If there's one thing that is true about Shannon, it's that she doesn't spend much time on tears. Once the shock and grief wore off, the military vet and no-nonsense RN in her kicked into action. She started planning. Her first stop—and the first person she disclosed her diagnosis to—was the human resources director down the hall. Shannon wanted to clarify what her insurance would cover, where she could get her care, how much time off she'd have.
Don't worry, she was told. Focus on your health, and we'll support you.
With her family, Shannon felt the need to project a stoic optimism. She made it clear to them that worrying wouldn't do any good. She didn't sugarcoat the details, but she also didn't want to evoke reactions of pity, so she kept the energy upbeat. She would need support, but she didn't need caretaking—that she could do herself.
"'We got a plan, we'll get through this,'" she told them. "I led the charge on that, and I think people fed off that—if I was positive, then they were also positive."
Keeping a positive attitude wasn't always so simple. During times of introspection, her thoughts would inevitably turn to her 10-year-old son. Shannon had gone through a divorce a few years earlier, and it had been hard on him, but he had pulled through. The two of them were incredibly close. "His first question was, 'Mom, are you gonna die?' And I said, 'No, of course not.'" She realized that while she wasn't afraid of the possibility of succumbing to cancer, what did scare her was the thought of him growing up without her.
"I tried not to let myself go there, but there were many times where I just thought, I can't leave him," she said. "I don't know what I would do."
Shannon's cancer was triple-negative, which means her cancer cells did not express hormone receptors that act as targets for certain chemotherapies; as a result, it is more difficult to treat and associated with a higher rate of recurrence. It accounts for a minority of all breast cancers and tends to disproportionately affect young and Black women.
"They tell you don't go searching on Google, but I did, of course," Shannon said. What she found was not encouraging: "It has the highest mortality rate, it has the highest recurrence rate, it's the fastest growing...there's all these terrible things about it."
"I just hit the lottery when I got it."
Her doctors gave her a choice between proceeding straight to chemotherapy or having surgery first, followed by chemo. She opted to start with chemotherapy. There had been a trip to visit family in Maine scheduled for the summer; she cancelled it and they came to her instead.
Every two weeks, she would go to the chemotherapy infusion center, get hooked up to an IV, and watch as the drugs slowly dripped into her vein. One of the agents, doxorubicin, is known to patients as the "Red Devil" due to its Kool-Aid-like hue and notoriously harsh side effects.
The first two cycles were "rugged" but mostly uneventful; chemo made her tired, but she had expected that. She brought her laptop to the infusion center and was surprisingly productive there, creating PowerPoint presentations for work, participating in conference calls. The appointments were on Thursdays, and by the following Monday she'd be back at the office, feeling more or less normal.
Her hair fell out; she had also been expecting this. Her family helped her shave her head after the first chemo infusion, and she amassed a collection of bandannas to wear when she went out. These came to serve as an identifier, of sorts, that others recognized as the badge of the cancer patient. She started receiving unsolicited support from strangers.
"I would be at the grocery store, or wherever, and random women would just come up to me and hug me and say, 'You're so brave, you got this,'" she said. "That was really touching. It was almost like a sisterhood."
It wasn't until after the third cycle that Shannon began to feel really sick. First came the nausea. Her oncologist had equipped her with an armamentarium of anti-nausea medicines, but none of them worked. Then she started having uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting, like her body was turning itself inside out.
She took herself to the emergency room. They advised her to rest and stay hydrated. These were normal chemotherapy side effects, they told her, and would eventually pass. Shannon disagreed, and told them so—this was too severe to be just from the drugs. It took some convincing, but they agreed to send a stool culture. It ended up growing Cryptosporidium, a parasite that infects the gastrointestinal tract and often preys on immunocompromised people. She took an anti-parasitic medication and her symptoms resolved quickly.
"It was so validating to me," she said. "I take that lesson with me now, as a provider: Listen to your patient when your patient is telling you something is wrong."
Shannon was eager to put this phase of her life behind her and move on. She would do whatever offered the greatest odds of never having to contend with cancer again.
By the fall, Shannon had finished her eight sessions of chemotherapy and was allowed some time off to recuperate before surgery. Again, her doctors gave her options: They could do a lumpectomy, a smaller surgery to remove just the tumor and the tissue around it, or a mastectomy, to remove the entire breast.
To Shannon, it wasn't really much of a choice. She was eager to put this phase of her life behind her and move on. She would do whatever offered the greatest odds of never having to contend with cancer again, so she chose to undergo a double mastectomy with reconstruction. She later elected to have her ovaries removed, too, because her genetic testing had revealed a slightly increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
"I think it was a psychological thing for me, just to get rid of it," she said. "I didn't want to deal with it, I wanted to be on the safer side."
"I said, 'I'm only doing this once, so let's just do it.'"
She has her sights set on the five-year mark, when the rate of cancer recurrence is greatly diminished. It's "like being in October, waiting for Christmas."
And so the cancer was removed, and Shannon was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Recovery from surgery was brisk, and she went back to the work she loves to do. Besides having to take an oral chemotherapy pill for six more months, she was finally out of the woods.
Now, Shannon sees her oncologist every three months. There are no scans to be done, no procedures, just breast exams and occasional blood work. She feels healthy, but vigilantly monitors her body for any changes—"I've mentally mapped all of the lumps and bumps," she said. The anxiety is there, and probably always will be, but Shannon maintains the mindset she established at the time of her diagnosis: Worrying doesn't do much good, and she won't let it control her.
She has her sights set on the five-year mark, at which point, she is told, the rate of cancer recurrence is greatly diminished. She is currently a little more than two years out. She describes it as "like being in October waiting for Christmas—close, but still not there."
"It’s a little bit like flying blind," she said. "I'm just hoping that there's nothing going on in there."
Shannon started an Instagram account, @providertopatient, where she documents her cancer journey as well as work she is involved in, from hospital safety to veterans advocacy. She has also immersed herself in efforts to improve access to preventative medical care for women vets, including mammograms like the one that detected her cancer early, when there was still a high chance of cure.
"I feel like I have a voice and I can use it," she said. "And it makes me feel good to do that for others that perhaps don't have a platform like I do."
When she's not working, she and her partner are busy planning their retirement: They're going to build a cabin in the woods of Maine, near a lake. It will be a place of serenity, close to nature, where family can gather. Shannon acknowledges that the preparations are a bit premature; retirement is a long way off. But she wants it to be there when they're ready. After all she's been through, the cabin is a reminder of what the fight was for, and of all the good years that still await her.