"...You Need Only be Still"
By Brad McEwen
Editor’s Note: This the fourth part in a special series where Brad goes Beyond the Bank to explore the impact cancer has had in multiple Southwest Georgia lives, and to highlight this year’s Phoebe Foundation Lights of Love tree lighters, whose incredible stories of hope and kindness provide inspiration for all and help fuel the important work Lights of Love in doing throughout the SOWEGA community.
Shala Juster – Phoebe Worth
Shala Juster’s cancer journey didn’t begin when she learned last spring that she had rare form of cancer she’ll be dealing with the rest of her life, or even when she began chemotherapy and immunotherapy to keep her lymphoma at bay.
In truth, that journey began almost 20 years ago, when the Illinois native took a leap of faith and relocated to Southwest Georgia—where she found much more than a new home.
“My oldest son and I moved here in 2002,” said the beloved Worth County Elementary School teacher and 2020 Phoebe Worth Lights of Love tree lighter during a recent interview. “I coached the high school softball team when I first moved here, so I definitely met a lot of wonderful people that are still near and dear to my heart.
“And, on my first day of pre-planning, in walks this tall, and in my opinion, very handsome PE coach. And he is now my husband.”
And it’s been Warren, her “three handsome boys,” and the tight knit and loving Worth County community that welcomed her whole-heartedly, that have been her rocks over the past year, as she’s navigated the often frightening world of cancer treatment.
“Fast forward to last year and I wasn’t feeling very well,” Shala explained, after telling me about moving to Worth County and meeting Warren. “I just woke up on a Friday morning and I was extremely tired, no energy. And I work out on a daily basis. But it’s just like I woke up that morning and the light had switched.”
What she didn’t know at the time, but would find out soon after, was that what she was feeling was not the result of something like gallstones or kidney stones, as doctors initially suspected might be causing her symptoms. Rather, after multiple doctor’s visits, where medical professionals ran tests to ascertain what was going on with the otherwise healthy teacher and coach, Shala learned what she was facing was much more serious.
“I found out on April 10th (2019) that I have follicular B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is more like a chronic illness, because it’s incurable,” Shala explained. “So, it will come and go. It’s not really it if returns, it’s just when.
“And so, we’ll face that giant each time.”
And how Shala and her close-knit circle of family, friends and colleagues face down that giant whenever it returns, will be with a tried and true mix of leading edge medical care, her deep and abiding faith and the Worth County community she considers family.
A person of strong faith, Shala was very direct during our conversation that she truly believes that the Lord has placed her right where she needs to be—surrounded by love and under the care of the exceptional oncology team at Phoebe.
In fact, she credits God with inspiring her to leave a teaching job in North Carolina for rural Southwest Georgia, where she had no prior connection.
“I graduated college in Iowa and there were no teaching positions in Iowa,” Shala explained. “My first teaching job was actually out in North Carolina. I taught there one year. And three weeks before school got out, I went up to the principal with a letter of resignation.
“I just knew it was not the place for me to raise my child. I was not at peace there.
“Well he looks at me and says, ‘Well where are you going to go?’ And I said, ‘You know what? Wherever the good Lord leads me.’ And this is where He led me.
“And I couldn’t have picked a better place for myself,” she continued. “I have found through this experience how awesome it is to live in a small community and how people really pull together during these times, during the highs and lows of life.
“The biggest thing that got me through, aside from Exodus 14:14, it’s definitely my family and my support system. The outpouring of this community has definitely made the days a lot easier.”
To illustrate that point, Shala walked me through the many ways in which the community—be it her Worth County Elementary family, her softball family, her church family or her son’s travel baseball team family—embraced her and carried her through the toughest year of her life.
“A lot of times people will tell you they’re praying for you, which is amazing,” Shala said. “I one hundred percent believe in the power of prayer. But (one friend) told me that she was praying for me and what she did was she wrote a journal and every day for 15 days she journaled to me. Like one day she’d write a little note, like how her day was going and, you know, how God was working in her life. And then one day she wrote scripture and she prayed that scripture over me. So that, to me, was… it showed me that she was praying for me. And that she loved me.”
In another instance, Shala said families associated with the Line Drive travel baseball team her son plays on also lent support. At every turn, she said, it seemed some friend, or group of friends, or even strangers, were doing something to lift her spirits or help her and her family.
“Line Drive did a baseball tournament and raffle,” she said. “From t-shirts to paint parties, it was just very overwhelming, in a good sense of the word. But again, I’m so thankful that my journey brought me from Illinois to South Georgia. That definitely was part of His plan.”
While Shayla doesn’t worry about having support, she did admit that she was plenty worried in the weeks leading up to her diagnosis, mainly because she knew something wasn’t right with her, but no one could seem to figure it out at first.
Prior to learning of her lymphoma, Shayla knew something wasn’t right. She had begun experiencing “extreme migraines and headaches,” and intense fatigue, despite an active lifestyle.
“I woke up (one) morning extremely nauseous and with a dull, constant pain in my back,” Shayla said. “As a matter of fact, three years ago I went to a surgeon because they thought I had gallbladder issues.
“Turns out what they didn’t tell me was that the lymph nodes were actually enlarged then; they assumed they were reactive because I didn’t fit the age range for lymphoma.”
That uncertainty, Shala said, was likely the worst thing she’s had to deal with during her cancer journey, simply because the conviction she had in her own understanding of her body. For several weeks, she said, doctors simply felt due to her age and overall health, whatever was going on with her was likely not cancer.
“Number one, I think it’s important that you listen to your body and that you are your biggest advocate, period,” Shala said. “You know your body. And while I know there are norms out there, not everybody fits the norm.”
After several days dealing with whatever might be going on—taking antibiotics for a possible kidney infection, waiting to see if she might pass a stone—Shayla finally went to Phoebe Worth, where she was given a battery of tests that uncovered the lymphoma.
“I went out there, and Dr. Derebail—I can’t say enough about Dr. Derebail at all—he is a wonderful doctor” she said. “He listened to what I had to say and he originally told me that we were going to do an x-ray. Well, he changed his mind and did a CAT scan and when the CAT scan results came back, he came in and I told my husband, ‘Honey, there’s no sense in you going out here with me. Stay home with the boys. No sense in you going out here for them to tell me I have a kidney stone. That’s silly’
“Well, (the doctor) came back asking all kinds of questions about family history of lymphoma and I just kind of looked at him like, ‘Why are you doing all of this?’
“And (Dr. Derebail) said, ‘I’m going to admit you to see a surgeon in Albany.’”
Although it took time to adjust to the news that she had cancer, Shayla said, thanks to her family, her community and her faith, she never lost hope. Through multiple doctors’ visits, various different types of treatments and medications and myriad tests, Shala has stayed positive and strong.
And now she is eager to share that hope and the wisdom she’s gained along her journey.
“Number one is be your biggest advocate; you know your body,” she said. “Connect with other people who have walked that road, because that definitely makes it easier.
“And put on your full armor of God every day. It has definitely strengthened my walk. I feel like it’s strengthened a lot of my relationships actually, because you don’t take every day for granted.”
And even though Shayla is still adjusting to the knowledge that she’ll be dealing with cancer the rest of her life, she firmly believes the Lord will carry her through, while also using her to reach others.
Throughout our conversation, Shala repeatedly made reference to a Bible scripture that she has clung to throughout her journey; one that she says really summarizes what she believes in her heart is the key to how she handles it all.
“Exodus 14:14,” she said. “That is a scripture that I definitely have held on to throughout.”
In the King James version I grew up with, that passage reads, “The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.” Or in other versions, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
That’s a powerful sentiment and one I’ve personally had the chance to see in action on more than one occasion in my own life. And for Shala, sending that message is one of the most important things she hopes to share through her story.
“If one person, came to Christ through this story, every treatment would have been worth it.”
Shala will once again serve as a source of inspiration for others during this year’s Phoebe Worth Lights of Love tree lighting ceremony, scheduled for Tuesday, December 1 at 7 p.m. at the Phoebe Worth Medical Center.
To learn more about Lights of Love and the myriad things this initiative is doing to better the lives of countless cancer patients across southern Georgia, visit lights-of-love.org
And be sure to mark your calendar for this year’s Tree Lighting ceremonies at Phoebe’s three area campuses.
Tree Lighting Schedule
Worth County: Phoebe Worth Medical Center (807 S. Isabella St., Sylvester); Tuesday, Dec. 1, 7 p.m.
Albany (virtual): Facebook @Phoebe Foundation or at lights-of-love.org, Thursday, Dec. 3; 7 p.m.
Sumter County**: Phoebe Sumter Medical Center (126 Hwy. 280 W., Americus); Tuesday, Dec. 8; 6 p.m.
**Hosted by Phoebe Sumter Foundation
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen