Shelly is a breast cancer survivor. That last word - survivor - is something that makes Shelly forever indebted to Kathy Olschewske, the nurse practitioner she saw that day in May. Had Olschewske not ordered a routine mammogram - something that’s becoming a rarity for patients under 40, the cancer would have grown undetected.

Shelly Baker didn't feel any lumps.

Nothing hurt.

She felt perfectly normal, in fact, and would never have known of the danger growing inside her had she not finally made the appointment for her annual gynecological exam.

In her case it hadn't be so annual -- she hadn’t had that type of exam in five years. She went to be sure she was healthy but also in hopes of getting a referral for a plastic surgeon. In a few years she’d be 40 and her gift to herself, after all those years of caring for everyone else, was going to be a tummy tuck and a breast lift.

The plastic surgery is coming sooner than Shelly, 37, wanted. And certainly not how she envisioned it.

Some time in the months ahead she’ll get silicone implants. They won’t be to enhance her breasts, but rather, to replace them. Her breasts were removed in a double mastectomy weeks after that fateful trip to the doctor’s office this past spring.

Shelly is a breast cancer survivor. That last word - survivor - is something that makes Shelly forever indebted to Kathy Olschewske, the nurse practitioner she saw that day in May. Had Olschewske not ordered a routine mammogram - something that’s becoming a rarity for patients under 40, the cancer would have grown undetected.

“I feel very grateful to her, even though she was just doing her job and thought nothing of it,” said Shelly, who lives in the village of Palmyra with her husband, Tom, and three children, Tommy, Nicole and Zach. “If she didn't send me that day, my life would be a lot different.”

Team Baker

The bleachers in the Lyons Community Center gym were filled with hundreds of cheerleaders.

The girls, ages 5 to 18, came from school districts across the Finger Lakes. On the sidelines of any football or basketball game, their squads would be cheering for different teams.

But on this day earlier this month, they were all on the same side. All were rooting for Shelly Baker, coach of the Newark varsity football and basketball cheerleaders.

Baker is well-known and well-loved in regional sports circles. She has volunteered for organizations like the Pal-Mac Youth Football and Cheerleading League, Finger Lakes Youth Football and Cheerleading and the Palmyra Community Center. She has also  worked as a cheer coach in Gananda and Canandaigua.

The event at the community center was called Blood, Sweat and Tears and was held in Shelly’s honor. Pink t-shirts were sold bearing the event’s logo and, on the back, “Team Baker.”

At one point the hundreds of cheerleaders rose to their feet and roared “L-O-V-E! We love Shelly!”

Though she doesn’t much care for speaking in front of crowds, Shelly couldn’t help but respond. “It is overwhelming how many people are here to support me,” she said into a microphone, choking back tears. “It’s not a death sentence. You can lose a part of you and get back up.”

Much of the proceeds from the event were donated to the Baker family to help offset medical costs and Shelly’s lost income while recovering from the double mastectomy over the summer. The family of five had to rely solely on Tom’s income as a deputy with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department.

Kurt and Sue Manski, the owners of The Flower Mill in Newark, gave the Bakers half of the money made selling flowers at the event. They told them they’d lost a daughter the same age as Shelly to breast cancer.

A motorcycle club brought meals to the Bakers. Relatives and friends have helped care for the Bakers’ children and keep their home running. They’ve seen a steady stream of flowers and cards and kind words.

Just this past weekend the owners of Palmyra Bowl held a fundraisers for the Bakers that included live music, raffles and more. And, this Saturday, the Newark Reds varsity cheerleaders will host a competition at Newark Middle School and donate part of the proceeds to the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester in their coach’s honor.

“It has been absolutely amazing, the people who have reached out to me in this and surrounding communities to just let me know they were thinking of me,” said Shelly. “It is so not a feeling I can even put into words I am so overwhelmingly thankful.

When it hits home

Shelly didn’t feel like a breast cancer patient until her breasts were gone.

She functioned on adrenaline in the few months between her diagnosis and the surgery to remove them on July 23. While visiting multiple doctors for tests and consultations and preparing her family, she privately wondered if it had all been a mix up.

But reality sank in as she awoke from the anesthesia at Rochester General Hospital. “I just remember waking up and being like, ‘OK, I must have had cancer,’” she said. “I was in a lot of pain and I didn’t have breasts.”

The cancer encompassed a roughly seven centimeter area in Shelly’s left breast. Caught early it was considered non-invasive and stage “0” but because the affected area was so large the entire breast had to be removed. Doctors found suspicious nodules in her right breast and gave her the option of having it removed, too, as a precaution.

Shelly ultimately decided she didn’t want to take any chances. It was a battle, though, convincing her medical insurer to cover the removal of the right breast since it was considered optional.

After the surgery, large bandages covered the long incisions across her chest. A plastic surgeon inserted tissue expanders under her chest muscles to ready the area for the eventual implants used to reconstruct her breasts.

The Bakers’ three children were not at the hospital during Shelly’s operation. Zach, 9, was at a recreation program at the Palmyra Community Center, while Nicole, 13, was at an out-of-town basketball camp. Tommy, 19, was in Hornell working with the Army National Guard.

“We just tried to keep their lives undisturbed,” said Tom Baker.

Still, it has taken its toll on the close-knit family.

“It really didn’t feel real,” said Tommy. “I just had to deal in my own way.”

Nicole said she’s struggling to write about her mom’s ordeal for a school project. When asked what the hardest part of the last several months, she has no words, only tears.

It has been a challenge for Tom, too. A veteran deputy, he’s used to being in control in tough situations. But this time, he said,  “I couldn’t fix it and make it go away.”

“When it hits home you don’t know how to react,” he added.

Cancer’s lessons

Because the cancer didn’t spread, Shelly did not need chemo or radiation like so many do. For that she considers herself lucky.

She has struggled with a bit of survivor’s guilt, knowing how many lives cancer has claimed. Among them, the 9-year-old daughter of a high school classmate. The funeral service for Lizzy Spencer was held at the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra on Aug. 18.

Though her surgery was less than a month earlier, Shelly was among the mourners.

Until that day Shelly had kept her emotions at bay, said her best friend Ami Williams.

“That was the most emotional I saw you get through the process,” Ami told Shelly on a recent evening at the Baker home.

Cancer has taught Shelly plenty. She has learned to let others help her -- something that doesn’t come easy because of her fiercely independent nature. She has been awed by the kindness and support her family has received.

Above all, she’s realized how precious every day is.

“I have learned too that life can change in an instant and that I should do things I want to know rather than putting them off,” she said.

Life is slowly returning to normal in the Baker household. Shelly has resumed her in-home salon business part-time,  and she’s back to coaching the cheerleaders for the football season even if she can‘t be as demonstrative as she’d like.

Every week, a doctor injects more saline solution into the skin expanders implanted in Shelly’s chest. She expects the expanders to be removed and the reconstructive surgery completed sometime next year.

“Even though I am not a religious person, I have always believed that things happen for a reason and we are not the ones in control,” said Shelly.

“I am not quite sure why I was the one to get breast cancer, but I am sure it will all make sense one day. I know that God wouldn't give us anything that we can't handle …I am doing my best to remember that.”