Ex-Cats

Mark Story: Now a cancer survivor, Shelby Hilton returns to UK

Former UK gymnast Shelby Hilton had her senior season prematurely ended last year when she was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. She is now back at school.
Former UK gymnast Shelby Hilton had her senior season prematurely ended last year when she was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. She is now back at school. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

For most of her time as a Kentucky student, Shelby Hilton walked around campus and heard people say “oh that’s that UK gymnast.”

Now, she fears her identity is “the girl who has cancer.”

A 117-pound bundle of muscle and energy last school year, Shelby now weighs only 94 pounds and gets tired just walking to class.

Of all the undergraduates enrolled at the University of Kentucky, it seems safe to say few have overcome as much in the past year to be in school as Shelby Hilton.

When I first wrote about Shelby in the May 24th, 2015, Herald-Leader, the outline of her story was this: A senior from St. Petersburg, Fla., Shelby had taken a dramatic fall to the mat while attempting a tumbling run during floor exercise in UK’s gymnastics meet at Florida last Feb. 27.

Fearful that Shelby had suffered a concussion, doctors instead found tumors on her brain. Oncologists diagnosed Shelby with a form of pediatric brain cancer, medulloblastoma, that most commonly afflicts young boys.

Facing the daunting prospect of radiation treatment, chemotherapy and the side effects that come with them, Shelby made two vows.

1.) She was going to kick cancer’s butt;

2.) She was going be back in school at UK by the start of the spring semester of 2016.

It has not been easy, but Shelby has done both.

‘We all started crying’

To beat cancer, Shelby had to endure a grueling regimen of medical treatments.

It started in Jacksonville with proton therapy, a form of radiation. Before that phase ended April 27, Shelby’s hair fell out and her taste buds went haywire.

Next, Shelby began four rounds of chemotherapy June 8 in Orlando. “The chemo, I would say, was a lot worse (than the radiation),” Shelby said. “It did a lot more on my body. I lost, probably, 20 pounds. I was just so out of it. I couldn’t even stand up and walk on my own.”

What had been the tautly-muscled body of a college gymnast lost all definition. Throwing up multiple times a day, Shelby could not keep food down. “I had a feeding tube so I could gain weight,” Shelby said. “I just never could gain it back.”

Losing your eyelashes, your eyebrows, losing you hair as a young adult, a female, that’s pretty hard.

Shelby Hilton

Adding to her stress, Shelby kept experiencing elevated temperatures after taking her chemo treatments. Those fevers scared her because they could presage infection setting in at a time when her body’s immune system was uniquely vulnerable.

“Every time you get a fever, you can get an infection, and it can kill you,” Shelby said. “I was just like, ‘This could be my last day.’”

After all that, doctors at Orlando’s Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital called in Shelby and her parents, Donna and Hank Hilton, on Sept. 29 to go over Shelby’s brain scan and tell them whether the radiation and chemotherapy had done their jobs and killed the cancer cells.

The verdict was the one for which many had been praying.

“They said I was disease-free,” Shelby said. “My Dad started crying. We all started crying, we were just so happy and relieved to hear that.”

Return to UK is ‘hard’

Almost immediately after getting the good news from her doctors, Shelby began planning her return to UK for the 2016 spring semester.

This even though many around Shelby thought it was not wise to come back to school so soon after going through such a trauma. “So many people thought I was jumping into it too quickly,” Shelby said.

Ultimately, Donna Hilton said Shelby’s immediate family had its reasons for thinking it was best for her to return to college now. “We actually talked to her therapist, and their concern was if she didn’t go back (to college) now, she may not ever go back.”

Before signing off, however, Donna and Hank Hilton put their daughter through some self-sufficiency tests. Could she cook for herself? Was she able to again safely drive a car?

“She passed,” Donna said. “That’s why she’s back.”

Because of her weight loss (94 pounds on a 5-foot-2 frame), Shelby got to buy a whole new wardrobe for her return to college. “Yeah, in kid size,” she said.

Shelby says the transition back into the life of a college student has been “a lot harder” than she expected.

As a result of her treatments, Shelby has lost some short-term memory. Her ability to stay mentally focused is not yet back to where it was before. With the help of tutors, Shelby is trying to adapt her learning style to her current realities.

Where once Shelby was one of the fittest people walking the UK campus, now merely going to classes can tire her out. “I do get tired very easily,” Shelby said. “But, even my doctor said she is surprised that I am not as fatigued as I could have been.”

Perhaps the biggest challenges of coming back to college have been social. College students do not have ample experience in dealing with people who have had cancer.

“Some people are just way too nice,” Shelby said.

Others, Donna Hilton said, “just don’t know what to say, so they avoid her. Which is even harder.”

Shelby’s goals are to finish up the 24 hours she needs to earn her communications degree, and then find a way to get back involved with gymnastics, be it as a television analyst, a college coach or both.

At times, Shelby is uncomfortable because she feels like people now look at her differently. “Losing your eyelashes, your eyebrows, losing you hair as a young adult, a female, that’s pretty hard,” she said. “The way you put on makeup is different. The way people look at you is different.”

With all that said, “a lot of people are very good about my situation,” Shelby said. “And I appreciate that.”

Going forward, Shelby is still taking what she and her mom call “a chemo drug,” a trial protocol through St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Once she completes the trial after a year, Shelby looks forward to her hair growing back.

There are days, Shelby said, when she struggles to believe the cancer that so disrupted her life is really gone from her body.

“Instead of celebrating and saying that I am in remission, I’m like ‘OK, stop saying I am in remission. What if I’m not in a week or whatever?’ But since I am on the chemo drug, it’s not likely for it to come back.”

Shelby’s goals are to finish up the two semesters (24 hours) she needs to earn her communications degree from UK, and then find a way to get back involved with gymnastics, be it as a television analyst, a college coach or both.

On Jan. 29, at Kentucky’s gymnastics meet with Georgia, UK held a “Senior Night” for Shelby. It was to make up for the one she lost out on last season.

It also acted as a celebration of Shelby fulfilling her goals: As she vowed, she has survived brain cancer and returned to college.

The whole night, Shelby Hilton said, “was awesome.”

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