- Associated Press - Saturday, November 11, 2017

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - Long before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Sheila Easterlin was raising money to help fight cancer.

The gift shop manager at Merit Health Wesley for years helped with fundraisers for the American Cancer Society, Relay for Life and other organizations on her own and through her role at the hospital.

But since she was diagnosed two years ago, she has stepped up those efforts, raising $30,000 for ACS in October alone.

“The last two years she’s definitely been more involved in that,” daughter Melanie Belk said.

Easterlin, 54, of Purvis underwent chemotherapy, had a mastectomy and is going through reconstruction. Despite all she was going through, she stayed upbeat, relying on her family and faith in God to carry her through the journey.

“I truly believed that God was going to heal me,” she said. “My relationship with Christ grew and I realized that I always had sympathy, but now because of what I’m going through, I have empathy.

“When I was first diagnosed, God put Psalm 30, verse 2 on me: ‘Oh Lord my God, I cried unto thee and thou hast healed me.’”

Soon after she was diagnosed, Easterlin started a Facebook page to chronicle the process. She shared her thoughts and feelings, the ups and downs of treatment and recovery, holding nothing back. The page has more than 900 followers.

“I’m going to put this out there and let people know how it feels and what your emotions are,” she said. “You knew my good days, and you knew my bad days.”

The page caught on. Survivors and those newly diagnosed contacted her to share their stories. People from around the world would offer words of encouragement. They could ask each other questions about the disease and compare treatment and recovery.

“She’s inspired a lot of people,” Belk said. “She was amazing through it all. She’s very strong.”

Easterlin got involved with cancer organizations after losing a friend, Kim Pylant, to breast cancer nearly 20 years ago.

She never thought that one day she would be the one battling cancer. She had had fibroid tumors in her breasts before, so she didn’t think much about the new lump she felt. She was involved in a breast cancer fundraiser, so she put off getting her mammogram.

“I never thought that I would be the one battling it,” she said. “I was totally shocked. You always think it’s going to be somebody else.”

Even though she wasn’t worried about the lump, she kept an eye on it, but it didn’t go away. When she finally went in for a mammogram, the lump showed up and the technician, who was a friend, put her hand on Easterlin’s shoulder and began to pray for her.

A biopsy confirmed the cancer, which was a late stage 2. She began chemotherapy to get the tumor to shrink, then had a double mastectomy. The tumor was gone, but the risk of the cancer coming back was too high.

Belk went to every doctor’s appointment with her mother and father, Mike, to support her - and to keep track of what the doctor said.

“She wrote everything down because I didn’t remember the first thing he told me,” Easterlin said. “It’s true. When you hear the word ‘cancer,’ you don’t hear anything else.”

Easterlin has been cancer-free for the last year and is grateful for her recovery and everyone who was there for her.

“I had such amazing support from my family, my friends, my church, people I didn’t know,” she said. “I learned a lot. I’m still learning because it’s a journey.”

Easterlin, who has worked at the gift shop for about 22 years, didn’t miss much work while undergoing treatment. She also started a support group that meets at Wesley and continued her fundraising efforts.

She speaks to various groups about her journey and is considering writing a book to share her story.

“With her being my mom, I always knew she was a strong woman,” Belk said. “After going through this, I really know she’s a strong person, a godly woman.”

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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