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Photo by Rebekah Greiman.

Magazine | Together in OK

Ken & Shelley Umezawa

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Posted 12.14.11

Shelley assumed the lump seen in the mirror was nothing more than a cyst and was shocked when the doctor told her otherwise. She remembers allowing a few tears to slip onto the exam table, and then slowly walking to the lobby where her husband, Ken, had been waiting.

“The look on her face distracted me from what I was thinking,” recalled Ken. “She looked shocked and terrified, which isn’t a look you see from her very often. That made it real.”

The couple had driven separate cars to the doctor’s office, not anticipating the outcome. Shelley then had to drive herself home—alone. The long drive gave her time to think. Ken and Shelley live in Osage County on approximately 40 acres, which currently houses the trailer they live in and enough room for their 3 dogs, 1 cat, and 23 chickens to roam. The couple moved here in anticipation of building their dream house. But with the diagnosis, their dreams would have to be put on hold.

“I bawled all the way home,” she said. “But, I went to work the next day and told my co-worker who said, ‘Should you be here?’ I said, ‘Where else should I be?’ ”

In 1992, Ken met Shelley while both were employed at Aviation Resources, a flight simulator company. He was a mechanic and she was “a cute girl” in charge of inventory. Ken had a bad habit of asking Shelley out on the day of. She did say yes a handful of times to the spontaneous invites, but eventually turned Ken down, saying she had a date with another co-worker. The next time Ken asked her out, the invitation came with several days’ advance notice. The couple quickly became an item and married on February 9, 2002.

Shelley was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, on the first day of November. She remembers making the conscious choice of staying positive.

“I was pleasantly surprised when we shaved my head that I didn’t look too bad. But I felt like I was 80 years old,” Shelley said with a smile. “I would start cracking up because Ken would have to help me up the stairs like I was an old lady.”

The doctors told her this was a fight she could win, and the couple rested on that statement.

“We realized that we couldn’t let this eat away at us,” Ken stated. “We had to keep living and roll with the punches.”

Shelley’s first chemotherapy treatment began six weeks after the diagnosis, two weeks before Christmas. Ports were inserted, blood was transfused, and clumps of hair began to fall out. Ken shaved his head to match his bald wife. Neighbors organized food for the day after Shelley’s chemo sessions.

“It was in copious quantities that lasted for days,” Ken remembers. “Without their help, we probably both would have starved.”

There were offers of lawn maintenance, house cleaning, and even money. A near-total stranger sent Shelley a card with $100 in it.

“I won’t go into how my bosses, high and low, said ‘Do what you need to do’, and my coworkers picked up my slack,” said Ken.

“I became grounded and found out what was important and what was not,” said Shelley, now cancer-free. “You tend to go through life and not know where you are. I hadn’t thought about the fact that we were living where we were living for ten years. We really had no clue that time had gotten away.”

Ken and Shelley Umezawa have their life “refocused” and are in the planning stages of building their dream home.