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Co-workers share office, survival over devastating disease

Sheryl and Shannon holding lit candles
TDCJ accountants Sheryl Conover, front, and Shannon Ware hold candles lit to honor cancer victims and to remember those lost to the disease during the Walker County Relay For Life event held in Huntsville on May 4-5.

Photo by David Nunnelee

Shannon Ware and Sheryl Conover share a profession, an office, and a disease – breast cancer. The two long-time TDCJ accountants also have two other things in common. Each is now free of cancer, and each is a stronger person for having survived it.

“You have to realize that you fought the hardest thing that there is to fight, and you survived it,” Ware said. “The absolute worst thing has been thrown at you, and you survived it. You can’t help but be stronger.”

“You have to keep going,” Conover added. “You have to make everything better somehow.”

In early May, Ware and Conover joined fellow cancer survivors at the Walker County Relay For Life fundraising event in Huntsville. Both were dressed in the purple T-shirts the American Cancer Society awards to cancer survivors.

“It’s my favorite color,” said Conover, who often wears purple outfits to work.

Conover, a 24-year employee of TDCJ, was diagnosed with cancer in June 2001 after finding a lump in her breast. There had been no history of breast cancer in her family.

“It was scary,” said Conover, who was 43 and the mother of two children when diagnosed. “You think, ‘Am I going to make it through?’ But at the same time, you tell yourself, ‘Yes, I am. I’m not going to let this disease beat me.’”

Conover immediately underwent a lumpectomy, which was followed by 12 weeks of chemotherapy and 33 consecutive days of radiation treatments. As expected, she lost her hair to the chemotherapy.

“I don’t like to wear hats, but I had to wear wigs, which to me resembled a hat. So I had to wear a hat every day.”

Ware, an employee of TDCJ’s accounting department the past 14 years, was 37 when she was told in August 2004 that the lump she had discovered in her breast was cancerous. Hers, too, was the first case of breast cancer in her family.

“It was personally devastating,” she said. “I had two daughters at home who were 10 years old. What do you tell your 10-year-old child? How do you tell them that mommy has cancer?”

Ware endured a lumpectomy, 24 weeks of chemotherapy, and 45 straight days of radiation. Near the end of her treatments, she became violently ill and grew weary of her struggle to survive.

“After six months, I was tired,” she said. “I was really tired of feeling bad. But I had two little girls. I had a husband. I had a mom and dad. I could not do it. I could not give up.”

Both Conover and Ware worked as much as they could while undergoing their exhausting treatment regimens.

“Our co-workers were very supportive and encouraging,” Conover said. “They understood that we couldn’t work if we were sick. And they understood that we were giving everything we had when we were there. And they’re still very supportive.”

One of the wigs Ware bought to wear to work when chemotherapy began to claim her hair was in stark contrast to her natural brown hair color.

“I bought a red wig and completely changed my look,” she said with a laugh. “Everybody knew I was going to lose (my hair) anyway, so why not have fun with it?”

Both women say cancer changed them for the better.

“It makes you appreciate the little things, like the rainbow in the sky after it rains,” Conover said. “As a survivor, you actually get to see that rainbow.”

Conover has a 20-year-old daughter and Ware’s twin girls are now 13. Although most cancers are not strongly hereditary, both mothers say they fear that their daughters could also one day be diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I fear that very much, and I think they have a little bit of that fear, too,” Ware said.

“One of the reasons I participate in Relay For Life is that the money raised goes to developing new medicines and technologies,” Conover added. “I know they have come a long way, and I would like to see it get even better so that, hopefully, my daughter would not have to go through this. I don’t want that to happen to anybody else because the treatments are very hard.”

Now five years free of her cancer, Conover gets a check-up just once a year. After her three years of being free of cancer, Ware takes medication daily and sees her doctors every six months. Both women believe researchers are close to finding a cure for the devastating disease.

“I’d tell new cancer patients to keep fighting,” Ware said. “Keep a good attitude and keep fighting because you don’t know what’s around the corner. There could be a breakthrough that could help you. You just never know.”

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