Shelley Harley: cancer survivor finds support at Wellspring
Shelley Harley’s number one guardian angel has a soft coat, floppy ears, and impeccable loyalty. She is a Bernedoodle; and like Shelley, she is a cancer survivor.
“I have always had a special connection with Heidi, my Grand Pup. I call her Missy Heidi,” said Shelley. “If you can believe it, she and I had cancer at the same time. Mine was on the left side of my pelvis, hers was on the right side.”
Both required surgery to remove their tumours. Shelley also endured six rounds of chemotherapy and three rounds of radiation to eradicate any remaining cells from her endometrial cancer.
“After every treatment, my daughter Holly would bring Missy Heidi in to see me. She knew she couldn’t get on the bed with me so she would just sit next to me and put her head on my hands. That was three and a half years ago and we are both still here, alive and well. I call us both survivors,” said Shelley.
It was December of 2016 and Shelley and her husband Bruce were planning a year of travelling adventures, when a trip to the emergency room resulted in the shocking news that Shelley’s abdominal pain was a symptom of cancer. “I remember the doctor saying, ‘we found a tumour – it’s cancer.’ The rest of the conversation was a complete blur – like Charlie Brown, all I heard was wa-wa-wa…” she said.
Beyond their imminent Christmas plans, the retired couple were hatching plans to visit their favourite B.C. garden retreats, and to venture east to Ottawa to take in a special museum exhibit. Most excitedly, they were booked for a dream vacation in Europe. Cancer was nowhere in their retirement plans.
“The day of my cancer surgery, April 6, we were supposed to be in Ireland for three weeks. It didn’t happen – but we’ll get there!” said Shelley.
Ottawa was also a much anticipated trip, as Shelley’s 97-year-old mom was being featured in the Canadian War Museum.
“After I retired, I was going through my mom’s belongings and I found an old scrapbook she had tucked away. That’s when I learned that my mom had been a ‘Bomb Girl’ in Ajax, Ontario during World War ll,” said Shelley.
Shelley’s mom had never spoken about the important work she did, joining a team of women who risked their lives working in a munitions factory, building bombs for the European front. “I got mom to tell me stories before her dementia got too bad, then Bruce and I took the information, along with all her stuff artifacts to Ottawa,” said Shelley. Thanks to their keen pursuit, her mom (Edith Vollrath/Whitford) is now featured in an exhibit called ‘Forever Changed’ in the museum that pays tribute to these women and men for their brave contribution to the war efforts.
“Aside from gardening, which I really love, my biggest passion has been promoting my mom, who raised seven children and was a ‘Bomb Girl’,” said Shelley with great pride.
As for the cancer, Shelley believes that chapter is behind her now and along with tremendous gratitude for her faith and the support of family and friends, she credits her Grand Pup with helping her heal.
“It doesn’t matter what species you are; what you believe; what you do; cancer can happen to you like it happen to me and Missy Heidi. But we both made it through – we are both survivors,” she said.
The Push to Wellspring
Also on her tally of saving graces during cancer, Shelley talks about Wellspring, and shares how another of her faithful friends – her husband Bruce – helped her find her way to this important community of support.
“I first heard of Wellspring through someone we know who works at Tom Baker Cancer Centre, but I was in the throes of chemotherapy and feeling horrible,” said Shelley. “When I started feeling better, I did join, but I found every excuse in the book not to go. Cancer kicked my ass – I had no confidence left, and anyway, I thought Wellspring would be a place where people with cancer would gather to share all kinds of sad news and I just didn’t want any part of that.”
Before the pandemic closed Wellspring’s centres, Shelley finally decided to sign up and attend a yoga class at Randy O’Dell house, but on the way there, she got cold feet.
“As we are driving I told Bruce to just turn around and take me back home, I wasn’t up for it. But he pulled into the Wellspring parking lot and said, “I’m going to leave you here Shelley. I’ll go get some groceries and I’ll see you in one hour.” He didn’t give me a choice, I had to go inside and try it out. It was the best thing he ever did. I haven’t looked back,” she said.
“The first session, all I did was cry the entire time. I am Metis and my ancestral heritage is Cree from Treaty 6 territory. The spiritual connection I felt in that room with the Elder and other members – it was unbelievable – it was profound,” she said, adding, “Wellspring is not a place of doom and gloom, it’s a place of understanding. There’s this unspoken word – you don’t have to explain. You just be there; be in the moment. It was so uplifting, I couldn’t wait to get to my next class.”
In the days that followed, Shelley stayed focused on taking care and finding her way back to wellness.
“I have always had lots of love and support in my life, and that was here for me during this cancer experience. My family, my Grand Pups, I am so blessed,” she said. “But what I have to say about Wellspring; when you are in a room with people and there is an unspoken understanding and no judgement – no expectation – no need to prove yourself, you can just feel the love and support.”
Her first day through the doors of Randy O’Dell House hold special meaning – a push in the right direction from her husband who cares deeply for her. But Shelley also credits help from above.
“When I left Randy O’Dell House that day, I put my hands up to Creator and said ‘thank you for leading me here’,” she said. “I truly believe that while Creator was healing my body, Wellspring was helping heal my mind and spirit.”
In 2020 when Wellspring’s Light It Up Run and Walk fundraiser was a virtual event, Shelley invited her family to participate with her – including her two Grand Pups. Miss Heidi donned her own ‘Cancer Survivor’ banner. “I was so grateful to be a participant, and even though I could only walk three kilometres, to me it felt like a 100. I was so proud to finish!” said Shelley.