A turn in the road

They say God laughs when you try to make plans. Recent MHS graduate Shayla Savage had to do a course correction to allow for a bout with cancer instead of moving away for college.

Photo by Jenny Kirk Shayla Savage, with the family’s cat, Rascal, sits next to her mom, Holly Savage, as they talk about the 18-year-old’s recent journey with cancer. Shayla Savage was 3 years old when Rascal, now 15 years old, joined the family. Savage is passionate about caring for animals and is planning to pursue a career in animal rehab despite cancer temporarily slowing her down.


A week prior to starting college classes, 18-year-old Shayla Savage’s life was turned upside down.

For as long as she could remember, Savage planned on pursuing a career that involved caring for animals. After graduating from Marshall High School in the spring, she was on track to attend classes at Minnesota State University, Mankato. But instead of moving onto campus, Savage is at home battling cancer.

“It wasn’t the best news you can get, especially since it was a week before college started,” said Savage, who plans on getting a degree in zoology at MSU.

While Savage and her parents, Holly and Chris Savage, feel like they’ve been caught in a whirlwind the past few months, things are starting to settle down as they’ve gotten into a routine.

“At first, it was hard for Shayla,” Holly Savage said. “She finds out she has cancer and has to deal with that. Then she has to figure out what she’s going to do about college life. So the first couple of weeks were difficult and overwhelming for her. Now we’re just going with the flow.”

Last week marked the halfway point for chemo treatments.

“I should be done by the end of January,” Shayla Savage said.

Her 15-year-old cat named Rascal and an energetic goldendoodle named Murphy are helping Savage keep her spirits up.

“I call him my therapy dog,” she said. “I figured since I had cancer, I might as well get a puppy, right? With all the money I was saving on dorms, why not spend it on a dog? It’s nice, especially since most of my friends are away at college.”

Savage is also taking a full course load of online classes.

“It’s just something to keep me busy,” Savage said. “I’m thinking about a zoology major, so I can go into animal rehab. I’ll be taking a lot of biology classes. I’ve always liked animals. I’ve known for a long time that this is something I wanted to do.”

Savage’s parents said they’ve known that their daughter would do something with animals since she was 3 years old.

“She’d put on her snowsuit in January and go in the garage and push the cat — that’s about the time we got Rascal — around in her stroller or wagon,” Holly Savage said. “She’d also put him on the tricycle and put his paws up on the handlebars while she pushed him around. She’d go out there for an hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon and an hour at night. And she was always finding animals and asking if she could keep them.”

Shayla’s medical journey

Savage hit the bump in the road on Aug. 15 when she sought medical attention.

“My neck got swollen on the left side,” she said. “We went to Hy-Vee first and they said they couldn’t do anything, so we went to Urgent Care.”

The doctor ordered a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan and said it looked like Savage had lymphoma.

“He said, ‘I’ll let you guys have a few minutes,” Holly Savage said. “He said he was going to try and get ahold of Dr. (Mark) Huber and set up an appointment for her down in Sioux Falls (South Dakota). Everything happened so fast after that.”

In Sioux Falls, Savage underwent more procedures, including a second CAT scan, an echocardiogram and positron emission tomography (PET) scan as well as other preliminary tests.

“For the PET scan, she had to sit really still in this room for an hour while the radiation went into the cancer,” Savage said.

Shayla Savage said they used a syringe to deliver the dose through her port.

“It’s like sugary, so the cancer eats it,” she said. “That’s how they’re able to pinpoint where it is.”

A week after meeting with Huber, a biopsy was done. Savage’s first round of chemo was Aug. 30. While the initial appointments were in Sioux Falls, Savage gets her chemo treatments, as well as a booster shot three times a week, at Avera Cancer Institute in Marshall.

“We’re really fortunate there’s a cancer center here,” Holly Savage said. “That saves a lot of mileage. When she needs to meet with Dr. Huber, she can do that here on Wednesdays. Then she goes the next day for her chemo. Plus now she has to go in for a shot three times a week. It’s a white blood cell booster shot to help her keep from getting sick easily.”

Shayla Savage was diagnosed with nodular sclerosis Hodgkin lymphoma.

“It’s cancer of the blood,” Holly Savage said. “When young adults get cancer, it’s typically this cancer. It mostly shows up in young people and then in people over 60.”

According to The American Cancer Society, lymphomas are cancers that start in white blood cells called lymphocytes. The ACS anticipates that about 8,500 new cases of Hodgkin lymphoma will be reported in the U.S. in 2018. The disease is rare in children younger than 5 years old, but is the most common cancer for teenagers ages 15-19.

“Dr. Huber said he’s treated a lot of college kids over the years,” Savage said. “He’s been treating lymphoma for 30 years and that he’s going to cure her. Non-Hodgkins is harder to cure, so we joke about Shayla getting the good cancer.”

Shayla’s support

In a careers class during her junior year, Shayla Savage did her job shadowing at Marshall Animal Clinic (MAC). During one semester of her senior year, she also did an internship there.

“It was really fun,” she said. “I got college credit through Mankato for the internship. And for the career class and job shadowing, I got to watch a deer leg amputation. That was pretty cool. The deer had gotten stuck on a fence and we tried to wrap it and it wasn’t healing. So we thought it would be better off if we amputated it.”

Holly Savage said her daughter got to bring home a newborn kitten that was abandoned.

“She bottle fed it, even at night,” Savage said. “She’d bring it back (to MAC) before she went to school and then she’s bring it back home again afterward. She did an awesome job.”

Staff at Marshall Animal Clinic noticed how passionate and capable Shayla was.

“She was very good when she was here,” Brandy Hieronimus said. “We’d get to the point where we’d say, ‘Where’s Shayla? We need her help.’ Just having an extra set of hands in the clinic really helps. Whether it’s a crappy job like cleaning up poop on the floor, holding a dog for one of the doctors or answering the phone, it just takes everyone to make it work.”

Hieronimus said she didn’t expect a high school student would ever consider fostering a kitten, but said “Shay Shay” — what the MAC staff call her — isn’t like most other teenagers.

“We couldn’t find any nursing cats at that time, so she said she could take it home,” Hieronimus said. “We said, ‘Shayla, you have to feed it every two or three hours.’And she said, ‘That’s fine. I’m up late anyway.’ She ended up saving that cat.”

When they found out their former intern had cancer, they wanted to do something special for her.

“We decided to do ribbons for her because we interact with people on a daily basis,” Hieronimus said. “The cost is just $1. I bought the ribbon and stuff and we spent an afternoon working on them.”

Hieronimus laughs when she recalls that day.

“I sat here with the glue gun in my hand while answering the phone,” she said. “We used puffy paint to put dots on the ribbons. It was kind of a group effort. And we’ve sold quite a few of them.”

MAC owner Scott Kuecker also bought special T-shirts for the staff.

“We’ve been wearing them on Fridays and everybody bought a ribbon,” Hieronimus said. “Everyone’s been really supportive. Shay Shay is such a kind soul.”

Personnel at Lynd School, where Holly Savage works and Shayla Savage attended classes from fifth grade to eighth grade, were among those who purchased ribbons. Many staff members also bought T-shirts and wear them on Shayla’s chemo day.

Cold Stone Creamery owners Keith and Lisa Edwards also bought T-shirts for themselves and family members.

“I worked at Cold Stone for two years,” Shayla Savage said.

Support has even come from even farther away — in Rapid City, South Dakota, where Savage’s older sister, Janiece, works at the Mystique Edge Salon and Day Spa.

“They surprised Janiece,” Holly Savage said. “The owner ordered T-shirts and gave one to Janiece and said, ‘It’s Shayla Day.’ And they donated all their tips for that day.”

Savage said many others, including church members, have also been a great source of support.

“She gets a lot of support, which is awesome,” she said.

Looking toward the future

Savage said the family is trying to keep things as normal as possible, especially for the sake of their younger children, Jerod and Sari.

Shayla Savage continues to take chemo treatments and stay on top of her online classes.

“She’s doing really well,” Holly Savage said. “She’ll have classes next semester, too. She wants to stay on track with the timeline that she wanted and that of her friends. Her friends are off at college, but they are really good at stopping in or hanging out with her when they are home.”

While it was somewhat horrifying to lose her hair, Shayla Savage isn’t necessarily looking forward to her hair growing back.

“It was bothering me because it was falling out and getting in the way, so I decided to just shave it,” she said. “I had long hair before this. I’d run my hand through my hair and it would come out in strands. It would be all over my pillow and my bed. And I’d walk on the carpet and get it between my toes. I didn’t like that.”

Savage is grateful her hair didn’t come out in clumps.

“I kind of like my (short) hair,” she said. “It’s easier. And it saves a ton on shampoo.”

Savage said she’s hoping to get a part-time job at MAC after she finishes chemo and over the summer.

“I’m looking forward to that,” she said. “And as of now, I’m planning to (attend classes on campus at MSU) in the fall.”

Holly Savage looks forward to seeing what her strong and determined daughter will accomplish in the future.

“By the time she’s done with chemo, the cancer should be gone,” Savage said. “There’s such significant shrinkage already in her spleen and some of her lymph nodes. Dr. Huber said after all this is said and done and Shayla’s better, she can go back to her regular quality of life that she had before. It shouldn’t really have to be different. Hopefully this is just a road bump for her.”