With every step and every lap around the track at Robert M. Shoemaker High School in Killeen, one 1st Cavalry Division spouse closed an arduous and emotional chapter of her life.
After a yearlong struggle with cancer, Shawna Niles, spouse of Lt. Col. Rolland Niles, the 1st Cavalry Division deputy chief of staff, is cancer-free. At the track, she took several victory laps as part of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life fundraising event May 3.
“I got diagnosed June 6 last year,” said Shawna Niles. “It’s been about a year or two that they’ve been watching a spot and said there was nothing, but my gut and God just told me that there was something wrong.”
After an MRI, an ultrasound and a biopsy, Niles was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was at the Spirit of Fort Hood Chapel doing her work as the Protestant Women of the Church president when she got the call and immediately went to tell her husband.
“I drove right over to his office to tell him and ... Chaplain (Addison) Burgess (the then-division chaplain) was in the parking lot,” she said. “I couldn’t contain myself to go find him, so he escorted me up to his office to take me to him, so I could tell him.”
“It was a surprise,” Rolland Niles said. “I knew she was having the test, but you always hope that it’s going to be negative. I didn’t think she would have cancer.”
The fight against the cancer immediately began in earnest.
In July, she had surgery to remove cancer from the breast.
“A week later, they found out that they didn’t get all the cancer, and they did another surgery a week later to remove the cancer ...” Shawna Niles said.
The doctors then started chemotherapy in August and radiation in February.
“I felt so horrible I thought I was going to die,” she said.
She attributes the strength she mustered to come through her ordeal to an extensive support system.
“It’s been tough,” she said. “Not being able to take care of my family, do my duties as a wife. It’s been tough, but the Cav family was very gracious to help us. The wives made meals once a week to twice a week. ... Just a lot of support from the wives.”
Even after struggling to regain her health and confessing to the difficulty of that struggle, Shawna Niles said, “The hardest part was everybody having to wait on me.”
“As a wife, you never want to be the person that holds your husband back from his career,” Shawna Niles said.
Then one of her husband’s co-workers told her she was first priority now.
Shawna Niles has been an Army spouse for 17 of her husband’s 21 years in uniform.
“It was time to give back,” Rolland Niles said. “The family makes sacrifices for the soldier, so it was my opportunity to make sacrifices for her. The command group was very flexible in giving me the time I needed to get away for chemo.”
Sometime in January, the idea occurred to Shawna Niles to participate in Relay for Life. Her church family and friends rallied behind her.
Relay for Life is the American Cancer Society’s community fundraising event, during which teams camp out overnight with at least one member of each team on the track at all times for up to 24 hours.
For Rolland Niles, getting to see all the survivors served as a testament to the possibility of survival.
“Coming here, you get to see everybody else,” Rolland Niles said. “It just reinforces that you can survive. These are all success stories that you see walking around here.”
Hundreds turned out for the relay. For Shawna Niles, participating helped bring closure in her battle. “I think I needed to be here today to say it’s done — to shut the door, to close it, to say I can move on.”