Bellingham cancer survivor shares experience to remove stigma

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 28, 2013 

Cancer survivor Shawn Dahl

Shawn Dahl, left, Grace Dahl, center, and Linda Dahl, right, sit in their kitchen, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2013 at their house in Bellingham.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - In October 1993, Shawn Dahl and Linda Barry were engaged to be married and set to work planning their wedding, scheduled for June 1994. There was no way they could know life-changing news was just around the corner.

Dahl and Barry were regular participants in biking and running events around Washington. After running in a charity event that December, Dahl went to the doctor with a sore throat and mentioned some groin discomfort he thought might be related to the race. It wasn't.

He was diagnosed with testicular cancer and had surgery immediately to remove the affected testicle. That January, doctors also removed a lymph node from his back. Doctors decided the cancer had progressed, so they put Dahl on chemotherapy.

Dahl tried to freeze sperm samples before undergoing chemo, in case he and Barry later decided they wanted to have children, but he was unable to do so because the surgeries had lowered his sperm count too far.

At the time, both Dahl and Barry already worked extensively with children, mainly at-risk youths. For them, not having children of their own wasn't a devastating idea.

"We weren't getting married to procreate," Dahl said.

The young groom-to-be started chemotherapy on Valentine's Day 1994. For three weeklong rounds, Dahl checked in at St. Joseph hospital to get blasted with chemicals 10 hours a day. He finished treatment by Mother's Day.

The hardest part of being sick was slowing down, Dahl said. He's active and wanted to keep running and biking. He had raced across the North Cascades Highway as part of "The Great Escape" prior to having cancer, and wanted to do so again in summer 1994.

But the weekend after he finished chemo, Dahl went for a 30-mile bike ride.

"My body freaked out," he said. "Especially where they had given me chemo, those veins started swelling."

Surrounded by family, Dahl tried not to call attention to the pain he was in, but he asked himself, "What am I doing to my body?"

He talked to his doctors, who reminded him his veins would take awhile to get healthy. They said he should slow down.

He and Barry married on schedule in June.

"I was bald and bloated," Dahl said. "I looked like Uncle Fester at the wedding."

Despite the immense toll the surgeries and chemotherapy took on Dahl's body, he started to recover. By that August he was able to ride the Great Escape again.

"It was pretty spectacular," he said.

Even more incredible was what happened less than two years later. Though they had been told they would never have children naturally, in June 1996 Barry learned that she was pregnant.

At Bellingham's Relay for Life a few weeks later, they showed the ultrasound image to Dahl's chemo nurse.

"I handed it to her and she burst out in tears," Dahl said.

They named their daughter Grace, "because we had her by the grace of God," he said.

After Grace was born, they took her to the hospital to show her off to the nurses and Dahl's doctor, whose own wife was fighting cancer at the time. They asked if he wanted to hold her, but he brushed them off.

"He was a big bear of a man," Dahl said. "All of a sudden he turned around and started down the hall, and said 'You made a lot more than my day.'"

JUST A WORD

It has been 19 years since Dahl was sick. Now 49, he teaches science at Everett Community College and lives in Bellingham with Linda and Grace.

He talks openly with students about his past, and tries to make cancer a topic people feel comfortable talking about.

"We had friends who couldn't even say the word 'cancer.' It's just a word, you know," Dahl said. "I want to take the stigma away from cancer and testicular cancer. It's a part of your body you can get cancer in; you shouldn't be embarrassed in any way."

Dahl lists information about cancer resources on his syllabus and encourages his students to do self-exams. Each year, he participates in Relay for Life, and each year he receives a medal for being a cancer survivor.

Oftentimes, he said, students approach him after class and tell him things like "My mom had cancer" or "My aunt is struggling."

"I give my medals from Relay for Life to people," Dahl said. "I say, 'Tell her she's a fighter and she's going to make it.'"

He's given out 17 medals so far.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

The American Cancer Society is celebrating 100 years of fighting cancer this year. Locally, PeaceHealth St. Joseph opened it 35,000-square-foot Cancer Center in Bellingham late last year.

The Bellingham Herald asked local cancer survivors and volunteers to share their stories this month to highlight the progress that has been made fighting these disease. Stories in the series have appeared through October.

The closest American Cancer Society office is in Everett, at 3120 McDougall Ave., Suite 100. For details, call 425-741-8949 or go to cancer.org.

Relay for Life, the signature fundraiser for American Cancer Society, takes place in three locations in Whatcom County from May to July: Western Washington University, Lynden and downtown Bellingham. For details or to sign up, go to relayforlife.org.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service