Shannon McKenna, an oncology research nurse at Norton Cancer Institute, will walk in this year’s Survivors Parade as one of its proud survivors.
“That pink is for me now” was Shannon McKenna’s sobering realization with her diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) on Kentucky Oaks Day, April 30, 2021 at the young age of 28. This year, on May 5, Shannon will be one of 149 breast and ovarian cancer survivors and fighters selected to walk in the 15th Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade on Churchill Downs’ historic racetrack. She is determined to flood the fateful day with positive memories.
Shannon is a Louisville native, attended Bellarmine University, and worked as an ICU nurse at Norton Brownsboro Hospital, before applying for an Oncology Research Nurse job in clinical cancer trials. Remarkably, it was around that time her then-boyfriend (now husband), Kristopher Cowan, was diagnosed with testicular cancer at just 23. Shannon took some time off to serve as his home nurse. Shortly after, she learned she’d been selected for the position. She walked in on her first day, only to discover she would be working for Kris’s oncologist.
Two years later, Shannon was taking a shower after the gym and discovered a lump on her breast. The following morning, a friend and nurse practitioner confirmed it looked like a cyst and recommended an ultrasound. While at work on Oaks Day 2021, her biopsy and mammogram results were delivered to her phone. She screamed, and fellow nurses gathered around to support her. “Within an hour, an oncologist appointment was made, a radiologist was called, and I began chemo within ten days,” Shannon says. “I am eternally grateful to my coworkers and team.”
Shannon met with three oncologists, and with a wedding on the horizon, chose Dr. Laila Agrawal because of her guidance and flexibility. Within seven days of diagnosis, Shannon and Kris were faced with another decision – delay treatment to freeze her eggs and embryos, or start chemotherapy immediately. Kris knew his wife had Stage 3C Breast cancer, just one step below metastatic, so his immediate response was, “No, save her life.”
“I was nervous about not being who I was before treatment, but cancer changes people,” she says. “You have to reestablish who this version of you is.”
On May 21, 2021, just days before her hair fell out, Shannon and Kris were married. “My church community gave me the wedding I never knew I needed.” Shannon wore her mother’s veil. Though still in the midst of a pandemic, her church community, friends and coworkers still lined the streets with signs and balloons to show their support.
Now, two years later, Shannon is working to support other cancer patients, while celebrating her own journey against the disease. “This is huge and heavy and hard,” she says as she describes the trauma and PTSD. Norton Cancer Institute Behavioral Oncology Program has deployed cognitive behavioral therapy, art and music therapy, and medication to support Shannon’s mental health. “I was nervous about not being who I was before treatment, but cancer changes people,” she says. “You have to reestablish who this version of you is.”
She used to ask herself, “why me?” But now, Shannon has a new outlook on life that has her changing the question to “why NOT me?” She thought cancer would break her, “but now I feel like a beacon, made and molded into a person who was supposed to do this.” She hopes to develop a prosthetic program to make an even more significant impact on the breast cancer community.
Through self-exams, Shannon, her husband, and a friend found their cancers all before age 30. Although she has had a pathological complete response (pCR) to treatment, Shannon remains an active chemo patient to clear residual disease in lymph nodes. Her advice for other patients: “Advocate for yourself. Trust your body. Do self-exams.”