Three weeks before her wedding day, Cheyann Shaw uploaded a video to YouTube, a space the fitness fanatic regularly filled with workout clips and health tips.
But this time was different: She was now using the social video platform for a more emotional and profound purpose.
“I’m going to cry,” she said in the video, “but – I was told that I have cancer.”
Shaw has stage 4 low-grade serous ovarian cancer, a rare and slow-growing but stubborn strain that can be resistant to chemotherapy treatments.
Over the past four months, she started chemo – then realized it wasn’t working. She lost her hair – and filmed the moment she shaved her head.
She has been diagnosed and re-diagnosed, and moved from Florida to Washington state to be closer to her family and specialists. She has undergone surgery to remove her reproductive organs, appendix, spleen and part of her colon, along with a tumor from her abdomen that was the size of a small beach ball.
And, she said, she has learned that the ovarian cancer is still in her lymph nodes.
She has been sharing her swift decline from a 130-pound bodybuilder to a 102-pound cancer patient to show that having cancer “doesn’t mean you stop living.”
“I decided to document everything right after I got diagnosed because I wanted to show people what cancer does to a body,” she told The Washington Post last week.
She also wanted “to show people that with a positive mind, you can beat this.”
Shaw, 23, is a real estate assistant for her husband, Kaleb, an agent in Kissimmee, Florida, outside Orlando. She has always been an athlete, playing basketball, softball and soccer. She once raced BMX. Then, about three years ago, she got into fitness.
She had her first bodybuilding competition last year, she said, and was preparing for more shows over the summer when her ovarian cancer was diagnosed.
Shaw said she had started having symptoms, as early as fall 2015; but in June, she found a lump on her abdomen. Her OB/GYN told her it was probably a cyst or some torn abdominal muscles from working out too hard. But the next month, she was making trips to the emergency room, with sharp pains and an inability to keep anything down.
In August, she said, her doctors found the disease.
“Today, August 3rd, 2016 is the day that has changed my life for the moment,” she wrote on Instagram. “I found out today that I have been diagnosed with cancer. . . . I never in a million years thought this would happen to me, especially since I am only 23, but I know I will win this battle.”
Ever since, Shaw has been posting photos, videos and messages to keep family members, friends and supporters updated on a journey that she warned would be unashamedly raw.
“I’m literally going to show you the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said on YouTube, adding, “I’m literally showing you guys everything just so everybody is more aware of ovarian cancer because they do call it ‘the silent killer.'”
Ovarian cancer is uncommon, with about 20,000 U.S. women diagnosed each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most common in postmenopausal women, ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries but can still spread throughout the abdomen. In advanced stages, it is more difficult to treat, according to data from Mayo Clinic.
The CDC reports that “ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, but it accounts for only about 3 percent of all cancers in women.”
Shaw’s doctor, Renata Urban, said the bodybuilder has epithelial ovarian cancer, in which cancer cells form from the tissues of the gynecologic tract.
Urban, who treats gynecologic oncology patients through the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, said there is no routine screening for ovarian cancer. It is often not diagnosed until the disease is in stage 3 or 4. For patients who are in the advanced stages, she said, the five-year survival rate is between 30 and 50 percent. The survival rate for epithelial ovarian cancer “is not high,” Urban told The Post.
But, she said, younger patients have been found to have better outcomes.
“Epithelial ovarian cancers are generally found in older women, so, for her age, it’s uncommon,” Urban said of Shaw. “She’s been extremely courageous and has such a positive attitude.”
Shaw showed her first chemo treatment on social media.
“It wasn’t as scary as I thought,” she wrote on Instagram. She bragged on YouTube about her new high-calorie diet of ice cream and macaroni and cheese to help her keep on the pounds during her treatments.
And she posted a photo of her first day back in the gym.
In other posts, she has aimed to shed a tragic but truthful light on cancer.
“I’m human, I cry and I’m scared,” she wrote in one post, adding: “Cancer has taken so much from me already and on nights like tonight, I try to remember that it is okay to cry; it’s good to cry. I don’t have to be strong all the time, but I will not let cancer take my light and my smile.”
In September, she posted a video showing the moment she walked into a hair salon to have her head shaved because, she said, “it just bums me out to see my hair falling out.”
“It’s the moment of truth – I’m getting my hair cut, er not cut, I’m getting my head shaved,” said Shaw, with her long, beach-blond hair.
The following month, she appeared in a video from her bedroom in Seattle, saying she had moved there from Florida. She had learned that hers was a rare form of ovarian cancer, she said, and that it was not responding to chemotherapy treatments, which had taken a harsh toll on the body she had worked so hard to sculpt.
At her lowest, she weighed 102 pounds, and her body had started eating its own muscles for nutrients, she said. She’s now 107.
“I’m skin and bones,” the 5-foot-5 Shaw said.
On Halloween, she went for surgery – filming the moment she went to the hospital, and posting photos after it was done.
“Surgery was 5.5 hours,” she wrote after the operation. “I did have to get a blood transfusion because I did lose a lot of blood. They got all the cancer they could see out, took my spleen, appendix, full hysterectomy, and part of my colon out. I am not cancer free however. There is cancer is a couple lymph nodes. This doesn’t mean I am going to die, it just means I have to fight a lot harder. Scared is an understatement, but I know GOD is with me and I will be fine.”
“Some people may see the cancer being in my lymph nodes a step backwards,” she added, “but I just see it as just another bump in the road. I will never question GOD because I know he is at work to heal me and the devil will try whatever he can to get me to turn my back on the Lord; which will never happen. I will beat this, just have a little longer and harder road to travel on.”
A week later, she posted a picture showing her surgery scar on her now-gaunt stomach.
“When they were in surgery they did find out I’m actually Stage 4 because the cancer was in my spleen and I do have cancer in my lymph nodes, but I’m not worried,” she wrote. “Just another bump to get over and with GOD by my side I’m not scared. I’ll be fine and GOD will get me through this. I have a story to tell and I’m not done telling it and GOD knows that.”
Shaw has started a more targeted form of chemo to attack the cancer in her lymph nodes.
“My life has been turned upside down,” she told The Post. “It’s been hard.”
Shaw said her cancer is not terminal, but “there is a chance it may be terminal if some of the methods we have in place don’t work.”
In her most recent video, she sat at the foot of her bed, answering questions about her struggles and her future plans.
She said that if and when her doctors clear her, she wants to get back to bodybuilding, repairing and restoring herself after her body was ravaged by disease.
“After cancer, I definitely plan on doing more competitions and continuing to build my body because, obviously, I don’t like where it’s at now,” she said. “But I love myself and I love my body because I truly believe that if my body wasn’t where it was when I first began, I truly believe I’d be a lot weaker than I am now. So definitely, bodybuilding has saved me.”