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Husband, Wife Find Strength From One Another As They Cope With Cancer

Robert Joiner

The day Sha Fields was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, her fiancé came along to offer moral support, and he has been by her side since then. She says she used to wonder how to repay his years of unconditional support. The chance came last year, when the husband, Cliff, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The Siteman Center for Advanced Medicine at Washington University had no data on how unusual it is for a husband and wife to have cancer, but Sha says she is hearing that the experience is becoming more common.

The Fields were in the limelight over the holidays during a Christmas program sponsored by the Breakfast Club, which offers various services for breast cancer survivors.

”Sometime no matter how hard we try, everyone doesn’t always overcome breast cancer,” Breakfast Club founder Sherrill Jackson said at the event. “So this is a celebration of life, a celebration of what we’ve been able to do for one another and for our community to make a difference.”

Sha, 43, is a school administrator, and Cliff, 49, is an engineer. They live in Black Jack. They had tried to “keep things light” during their Breakfast Club remarks, Sha said.

“We wanted to provide a little bit of education but offer inspiration as well during the holiday season. We wanted it to be a blessing for people facing cancer and financial issues as well. We wanted to help them look beyond those things and at results like ours. We still love each other and support each others. But who knows what other challenges we may face in the future?”

Cliff recalls being stunned when sitting in the doctor’s office with his wife-to-be and hearing that she was suffering from breast cancer. “It was a lot on her to deal with. I knew I had to step up to the plate and support her, do anything that she wanted me to do for her.”

Sha butted in, saying Cliff “bathed me, dressed me, made sure I got my medications. I couldn’t have asked for more.”

He says he was equally shocked last year when told that a routine test for prostate cancer had been positive. He says he was thankful that his wife was there for moral support, just as he had been for her years earlier. Among other things, she encouraged him to get out of bed and walk following the surgery, just as the doctor had ordered.

She said, “He looked a little discouraged, but he got up right away and his healing process started with that. It has been a struggle, but overall he’s doing well, getting back to normal. Sometimes our expectations are such that we want the person to be back to normal right away. But this takes a while.”

They seem to be coping well, having celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in August. “We definitely feel blessed,” she says. “During that celebration, we hosted a co-survivors’ anniversary party. I cooked up a bunch of food and we all really had a good time. During this time of year for us, it’s special to just be able to be here for one another. It’s not about the gifts.”

Her thanks for his help deepened following a comment from her physician.

“My doctor was surprised that my husband came with me to every appointment, never missing a session. My doctor told him that some couples he’d seen come together didn’t always stay together through the woman’s battle with breast cancer. But my husband was always there by my side.”

Based on the family experience, she says, “We tell people to look beyond the material things because life itself is far more important than what you can give.” She knows people who go through the holidays worrying about not being able to buy presents. “My advice to them is to just go out and do something nice for that person, support them however you can. That’s the Christmas and New Year’s message we want to pass on.”

Thoughts about material things all but vanished the day she was diagnosed, Sha said. A big wedding became less important, because her focus shifted to paying bills in the face of a catastrophic illness. By coincidence, Fox radio 90.5 was sponsoring a promotional campaign at the time of her illness, prompting Sha to write a letter about her ordeal.

“I wrote how he’d been a great supporter for me,” she said. “I poured my heart out in that letter because he did mean a lot to me.”

Fox rewarded the couple by covering the cost of a wedding coordinator and paying the cost of the entire wedding, from the tux and dress to the photography and cake. A relative in her family covered the cost of a honeymoon in Florida.

Sha concedes that coping with a serious illness doesn’t mean couples don’t have fights.

“We don’t always agree on everything. We don’t have a perfect storybook life. But we respect each other and, no matter what, we made a commitment to see this to the end. I’m just thankful for this life.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.