Lancaster woman survives cancer twice, becomes champion horseback rider
LANCASTER, SC (WACH) -- In 1997, Larry and Cherie Steele built a barn on their land in Lancaster. As they put it up, stall by stall, they hoped it would become a sanctuary for their daughter. Little did they know, it would become the first place Shannon Steele ever talked on camera about her incredible journey.
"I hid a lot of things because I knew I wasn't like most children or young adults," Steele told WACH FOX. For years her friends knew little about the Champion horseback rider's struggles. She was very sickly early on in life and her parents didn't know what was going on. A horseback riding accident finally gave the Steele's answers.
" I fell off a family horse and was very uncomfortable in my legs," Shannon described the experience. She said her parents took her to the emergency room. She went on, "While I was there, they did some X-rays. They also took a specimen and said 'oh she has a UTI.'"
The hospital staff then referred Shannon to a Urologist. He said something wasn't correct with her bladder and the medical staff realize she had a tumor on her spine. "I was diagnosed with Nueroblastoma, which is a very aggressive cancer of the nervous system," Shannon recalled. "When they found it, i was already at stage 4."
Shannon was only 8-years-old.
The doctors didn't expect her to make it past 6 weeks at that time and told her parents to start "making their plans". Over the next 3 years Shannon battled through radiation and chemotherapy.
"The tumor...they weren't able to fully remove because it was sitting on my spine. It was wrapped around a bunch of nerves. They said I would be paralyzed if they attempted to remove it," said Shannon.
The cure for her cancer later left her with numerous after effects. "The radiation was terribly aggressive," she said. "I had third degree burns up and down my back."
When she was in high school, Shannon noticed the radiation caused deterioration in her body. The after effects continued to haunt the barn manager and she experienced another cancer scare in her 30's.
"We found out a lot of children treated back then with such hard chemicals developed endocrine problems and I developed a tumor on my thyroid and was diagnosed with hyper thyroid."
Instead of going through treatment again, doctors removed her thyroid.
"It took me a long time to not have a lot of self abuse like 'you're not as good as those people. You'll never be as good as those people,'" Shannon recalled.
"I have a few social anxieties . I'm not real good in large crowds and I get a little intimidated with new people....but with horses it's totally different, you come to them. They're completely authentic, you know exactly where you stand. They're looking for leadership from me. I am enough! With them it was such a release."
Shannon rode horses as a child but drifted away during her illnesses. She got back on the horse and started competing in her 30's.
"Bought a horse, some people said, 'Wow that horse really has some talent you're getting some stuff done with it and I was like oh 'maybe I should take it to a show' and we went. We were wildly successful and the next thing you know, we are traveling and competing around the country 32 weeks out of the year."
Shannon finally felt like she had a purpose but there were times she couldn't get out of the trailer due to lingering effects of her illnesses and treatments, "That's a lot of money invest, time and energy by everybody.. Sometimes I'm just physically 'I can't ride.'"
Despite all her setbacks, Shannon still racked up numerous awards. She reflected on her experiences, "There's nothing more empowering for a young girl who feels less than or not enough to come control a thousand pound animal. When you get down, you feel like you can handle the world."
Shannon gave up competing a few years ago and says she's lost her competitive edge. She's now in her late 40's and still travels to watch the riders she trains at One Oak Farms.
"Helping the people in this barn get their horses prepared and watching them have that first experience of hearing their names called, nothing else will ever touch that," she says proudly.
For years she hid her story and her scars, but she now feels that story can help others.
"The point of being alive is just to live. So if you are doing anything less than that, you are wasting time and I don't want to waste anymore time."