Surviving and thriving: Student beats cancer twice, succeeds at TCC despite challenges

When Tarrant County College student Sstephanee Shelton crosses the stage and accepts her diploma at graduation, it will be a milestone that doctors feared she may never reach.

As a teenager, Shelton fell while running track and broke her finger. The X-rays revealed something far worse: she was suffering from bone cancer—and had only a 75 percent chance of survival. Shelton’s treatment included an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy with limb salvage, a surgical procedure in which her diseased femur was replaced with an implant. Doctors also told her she would never have children.

“I was on all types of horrible drugs that poisoned my whole body,” said Shelton. “And it took my hair out. As a young girl, that was devastating to my self-esteem.”

Shelton survived her bout with bone cancer but, after two years, she faced more devastating news. During a regular scan and blood work appointment, doctors discovered another tumor. She had muscle cancer. This time, she faced a 45 percent chance of survival.

The diagnosis shook her, but Shelton focused on her model of courage: Mom.

“She didn’t show any signs of distress,” reflected Shelton. “She is a strong-willed mother who taught her child that success is the result of hard work and persistence. She instilled in me respect and determination and a positive attitude.”

She would need that strength in the months to follow. As she fought for her life, she lost her grandmother. Just weeks later, Shelton’s father died of throat cancer.

“My grandmother was the strongest woman of God that I have ever known, and my father was my heart and soul,” she said.

Then came another blow. Her favorite aunt passed away.

“I just didn’t have anything left. I wanted to give up. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to die anyway,’” she remembered. “My mother stepped in and told me, ‘You have to be strong. You can do anything you put your mind to.’ She also said, ‘Talk to God. He’ll guide you in the right direction and give you strength.’”

With that advice, Shelton moved forward. Despite the odds against her, she survived.

As a high school student, Shelton took part in the Upward Bound program, preparing her for higher education. In 2009, she graduated from Paschal High School and the next year enrolled at TCC South. Unfortunately, Shelton would not be successful her first try at college.

“I was young and wasn’t ready,” acknowledged Shelton. “I didn’t take anything seriously. I thought I knew it all.”

She also faced another challenge.

“I began to get sick with pain,” recalled Shelton. “My mother, being very diligent, took me to the hospital. While there, I found out I was two months pregnant, with not one baby but two!”

Seven years after doctors told her she would never have children, Shelton gave birth to twin sons. They were seven weeks premature and experienced complications but, after two weeks in the hospital, Zuri and Zion came home.

“I had a new outlook on life. I knew I had to be successful in my education. I wanted my boys to be very proud of their mommy,” said Shelton, who again enrolled at TCC. “Just as I started college again, I received another blow: Both of my boys were diagnosed with autism with speech impairment. Zion also had ADHD.”

Shelton didn’t give up, though, and continued working toward a degree in special education.

“I’ve always loved working with kids and my love for special education has always been there, but it grew even more when I found out that both of my kids are special needs,” explained Shelton.

She admits that it’s not easy to raise her family while going to school.

“It is very difficult being a single mother and trying to balance school and having two special-needs children,” she said. “Luckily, I do have my mother to help out, to take me to school and also take us to appointments.”

Shelton also gets support on campus. She joined Students Targeting and Reaching Success (STARS), a program that helps students stay in school and graduate. Shelton began talking regularly with her professors, getting extra help with assignments and letting them know when she has to miss class. She also began visiting an advisor, Sharee Davis at TCC South.

“She is always checking on me, asking if I need anything and if my twin boys are all right,” said Shelton. “She is willing to stop and drop everything she is doing to help me when I need her.”

Davis met Shelton in fall 2016, when she was a student in the College Readiness Math Program.

“I don’t know how many other people would have the tenacity to push through all these hurdles,” said Davis. “I know it takes a tremendous amount of inner strength and courage just to get out of bed every morning after going through what she has been through.”

Shelton isn’t just getting by, she’s thriving. Her achievements earned her two scholarships, including the Texas Association of Developing Colleges’ Urban Scholarship Fund award. She plans to earn her associate degree from TCC in 2020 or 2021 and eventually go on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in special education.

“I find it inspirational that after all Sstephanee has been through, she can still smile, laugh and live her life,” said Davis, noting Shelton’s ability to manage her family and school commitments. “Her plate is beyond full and she takes it all in stride.”

Shelton says she just keeps moving forward.

“I do the most important things first, and everything else will fall into place.”

This story is the latest in the What’s stopping you? series, celebrating members of the TCC community who don’t let challenges get in their way.