Shawn Belanger, twenty-year-old college student, basketball player, big brother and cancer victim.
In May, 2010, Shawn approached his parents saying he had a lump on the roof of his mouth. His doctors in Quebec soon diagnosed a rare cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma. Rhabdo is usually a childhood cancer, and the older you are when diagnosed, the poorer your survival rates are.
The tumor was growing fast and began to affect his speech. His parents made the decision that Shawn would leave Canada to be treated at Sloan Kettering in NYC.Luckily, Shawn had an aunt who lived in Long Island, and he was a dual citizen, so was able to purchase a private health insurance policy for his US care.
The cancer was treated with intense radiation and a heavy duty chemo cocktail. Shawn endured long months of weakness and pain and suffering. The once muscled young man whittled down to nothing. The tumor was inoperable, but in May, 2011 the doctors declared it "dead." Shawn's extended family gathered at the family's summer compound on Tully Lake to celebrate with an all day party on July 3rd.
Lauren Mitchell, Shawn's ten-year-old cousin, wrote a song entitled "Canadian Hero" and sang it to the group to honor the brave efforts that Shawn was making to get better.
The celebration was to be short lived. In August, the cancer had re-ignited but the tumor was growing in the opposite direction, so now it was operable. The surgery would be extensive, involving the removal of teeth, cheekbone, and the reconstruction of his hard palate. Shawn was terrified, thinking that he might be disfigured and forced to endure excruciating recovery pain.
The surgeon declared to the family that the surgery went very well and he had "clean margins," a very hopeful sign. Shawn's recovery progressed nicely, despite having a graft taken from his forearm for his palate, and his inability to eat for several weeks. By late September, his hair had grown back, and he was glowing, cautiously happy.
But not for long. In early October, Shawn had a cold and his throat closed up. He couldn't breathe, and his mother wanted to believe it was from his bad cold. Not so. The rhabdo was back and in his throat.
The doctors called a meeting, and Shawn, his mother, and his aunt heard that "this was it."The cancer was too aggressive. There would be no more treatments The best they could offer him was comfort and care, and his life expectancy was two weeks to two months. The doctors warned that the end could be very violent with Shawn's tumor exploding in his throat.
Despite this crushing news, Shawn was determined to enjoy his remaining days and to prolong his life as long as he could. He sent heartwarming thankful texts to all of his friends and family members who had supported him, including one to Lauren encouraging her to continue her singing.
His family came from Canada to spend their last days with him. Shawn set up a routine that everyone followed. His day began around 10 a.m., and included games of pool and pitch, then he insisted on walking thirty laps around the floor at Sloan. His younger brothers and relatives often accompanied him, but Shawn always led the pack with swift purposeful strides.
Television was avoided as there were too many references to upcoming events that Shawn would not be alive for.Instead, he picked a nightly movie that everyone watched, and discussed afterwards.
The days and weeks stretched on, with Shawn losing his ability to eat, drink, and talk, but his energy never dimmed. He began to think about the after life, and his aunt arranged for a monsignor to come to speak to Shawn and his family. The monsignor did a beautiful job, giving as much encouragement to this dying boy that he could.
As the time went by, Shawn's greatist wish was that he wouldn't be forgotten, and his mother assured him that as far as the family went, he most certainly would not be lost in their memory. Shawn told his mother that the end was near, and he didn't think he could do his laps anymore. The next day, he didn't think he could even get out of bed, and he died peacefully that night (December 10, 2011).
Lauren revised her song and sang it at Shawn's gravesite in Canada. She had the opportunity to talk about Shawn and his life last week at her religion group in front of eighty people. Once again, she sang the song. He truly was her "Canadian Hero," and will not be forgotten.