When Shayla Litster was diagnosed with cancer, she became good friends with another cancer patient named Dov, the subject of our most recent Here to Help radio episode. Dov reached out and served Shayla by brightening a very bleak time for her. After Dov’s passing, she felt inspired to “pay it forward” and serve those around her as well, despite her illness.
When were you first diagnosed with cancer?
I was diagnosed on Tuesday, May 11, 2010, at 11:05 a.m. How's that for specific?! I remember it very clearly because of the events which lead up to it. I had felt a small lump on the left side. I was only 29 years old and had started to wean my daughter from nursing. While nursing I became aware of a lump. I had my yearly exam scheduled with my OB in April, so I figured I'd try to remember to ask about it.
Just as the exam was coming to an end, my midwife asked me if I had any concerns. As she began the breast exam, her entire demeanor changed. She began asking me lots of questions. I reminded her that I was still nursing my baby and asked her if it could be clogged milk ducts. She left the room and came back with a card and instructions to go to the Huntsman Cancer Institute for a mammogram. She told me to be sure I didn't miss that appointment and that I needed to take this seriously. That was the first time cancer even crossed my mind.
I know Heavenly Father was with me that day and that He inspired my doctor to also take this seriously. She could have just as easily told me I was too young to worry about it just yet or that I should wait another 6 months to see if anything changed. Instead, she was extremely specific in her instructions of where to go, what I would expect, and that I needed to take this seriously.
How did your life plans change when you received this diagnosis?
My diagnosis has changed my way of thinking and how I do things. I had been very concerned with my career as a hotel manager at several Marriott and Hilton properties. It was nice to be needed and recognized, and I felt a sense of pride because of it. I knew many important people, and they looked to me to ensure things ran smoothly. There isn't anything wrong with those things, and at the time, I seemed to think we couldn't make it on a lesser amount of money. The crazy thing is, I have always had the stay-at-home mom dream. I literally mean the Beaver Cleaver dream. But having the opportunity to stay home is less than the Beaver Cleaver ideal. Here I am with a cluttered house, kids that fight, bills piled high, metastatic cancer that cannot be cured at this time, and bedtime for me is usually around 2:00 a.m. However, I’ve realized that I am truly blessed. I have a sure knowledge that my Heavenly Father loves me and that I am a daughter of God. I have the gospel and I am sealed to my family. That’s more than a lot of people have.
How did your friend Dov Siporin inspire you through all of this?
I met Dov on my very first day of chemo back in June 2010. I remember thinking, "Who is this guy?" Mostly because he just came up and started talking to me as though he had known me all of his life. He treated everyone like they were already his friends. He gave me some advice and told me some of the things he had done in that last year to make it through treatment. I was in wonder and awe with the way he dealt with it. Here I was feeling bad for myself, and Dov had been through so much already. Dov has no doubt inspired just about every person he has met. The day I received the news that my cancer was now metastatic and all over my body, I thought of Dov. When I was told that I had 12–24 months to live and that was the average, I thought of Dov. When my kids ask hard questions and I don't know what to say, I think of Dov. When it's Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, or Easter, I think of Dov. Not just because he dressed up in a turkey costume, the chemo cupid, or an Easter bunny, but because he was able to rise above his own trials and do more with his life. He made those around him happy. He wanted to serve and give back. When I am in pain, hurting, feeling hopeless, or too tired, I remember that Dov felt those things too. Then I think if he can do it, than I can also. Just because I have cancer doesn't mean that the cancer has me.
Because of his example I strive to get up and do something. I will take cookies to the valet guys at Huntsman, write a thank you card to a nurse that always had a hard time taking my blood, call another survivor and ask about their day, etc. Just as long as I get up and do something rather than feel sorry for myself.
How were you able to turn this hardship into an opportunity to do good?
Any adversity can become a strength, if you let it. I beg Heavenly Father to help me, to let me live, to give me the opportunity to raise my children. I seek for knowledge and answers so that I can heal myself. I am constantly trying to come up with any way to keep living. If serving is what I need to do, then so be it!
How do you strive to serve others while undergoing cancer treatments yourself?
I think the majority of the service that goes on right now is in my own home. It's important as a mother to teach children to serve one another, and it starts in the home. We are constantly around each other, and we can see each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It's the little things like making lunches or helping with homework, housework, and cooking, and when my family's needs are met, my very favorite thing to do is to bake. Banana bread, sugar cookies, or chocolate chip cookies are my specialty. I love to find new neighbors and take them treats. I love meeting new people. I also love to leave treats as a surprise with a note to cheer them up. The look on their face is the best. I am in constant prayer that my body will work like it's supposed to so I can bake a batch of cookies—or a quadruple batch of banana bread, like last week.
What advice do you have for others looking to serve?
Each month I have an infusion of a bone strengthening medication. While that medication does make my bones ache, it’s not usually until the next day. At the time of the infusion, my favorite thing to do is find people that look like they need some encouragement. Most of the time it's easy to spot them because they still have hair. I try to do what Dov did for me: give others hope and a light that will remain with them throughout treatment and beyond. I have a little more strength to do this since I am not on chemo or eligible for chemo right now. I feel very blessed to take this opportunity to do these things. Maybe service will strengthen my body as well, but I know this burden has become lighter through service. I can say I am grateful for it and other trials in my life that have led up to it.