This nurse was diagnosed with a rare, cureless cancer. Now she’s helping save others


Shannon Adams, 43, was diagnosed with a super rare and aggressive blood cancer. Her fight has inspired thousands to help people who need stem cells.

Shannon Adams and her family pose for a picture last summer. Months later, she received a life-changing diagnosis.(Shannon Adams/Facebook)

Shannon Adams says she wishes she could go back to her old life.

The 43-year-old was working as a registered nurse at Norfolk General Hospital deep in southern Ontario.

After work, she'd return home to her police sergeant husband Brad and their two daughters, Abby and Emma.

"Everything was perfect," Adams said.

Her new life started in mid-December. Adams said she started feeling exhausted, barely able to muster the energy to leave her bed.

After a week with no improvement, she thought she had COVID-19. Adams said her husband drove her to Norfolk General to get tested.

Shannon Adams, right, stands with her two kids and husband. Their efforts to raise awareness about stem cells has led more than a thousand people to sign up as donors.(Submitted by Melanie Topp Steeves)

"When I went in, the hospital is small and I've been there for 18 years, so everybody knows everybody … when the triage nurse saw me she said, 'Oh my gosh, you look awful, I think we should do some extra blood work as well,' " Adams said.

She didn't have COVID-19. She had leukemia.

But another test produced even more dire news.

Diagnosis 'pretty much a death sentence'

Adams was diagnosed with plasma cell leukemia, also called multiple myeloma.

She was alone in the hospital at 2 a.m. when they told her. Her husband was in the parking lot waiting because of COVID-19 restrictions. He learned the news over the phone.

Dr. Hira Mian, a hematologist at Hamilton Health Sciences, said it's a blood cancer. The chances of having it are one in a million.

"It's bad luck. It's not inherited. I always tell patients, there's nothing you could've done to prevent it [and] there's nothing you've done that's caused it," she said.

Not only is it rare, there's no cure. Mian said it is super aggressive and most patients live between one and three years.

"It's pretty much a death sentence," Adams said. "They do their best to treat and manage."

Shannon Adams pictured at the Juravinski Hospital during her stem cell procedure.(Brad Adams/Facebook)

Adams started chemotherapy right away at the hospital, but was able to continue treatment at home just in time for Christmas.

After that, another team at Juravinski Hospital tried to treat her by collecting her stem cells, freezing them, giving her a heavy dose of chemotherapy and then returning her stem cells to her body.

Mian said most patients don't even get that treatment because of the cancer's aggression.

Adams said it helped her, for a while.

The next option was a stem cell transplant with someone else as the donor.

Hope — and unexpected news

Her family created a Facebook group to try and find a match for the transplant. She said the goal was also to raise awareness about stem cell transplants.

The group grew fast. Chris van Dooran, a territory manager of stem cells at Canadian Blood Services, said Adams' campaign was one of the largest of the year.

He said she influenced at least 1,100 people to sign up as stem cell donors and during one week, was responsible for one in every three new donors in the country.

"Her campaign has definitely made an impact on the registry and the lives of people waiting for a match," he said, considering there was a 70 per cent dip in registration when the pandemic started.

It seemed certain Adams could find a donor — but then she received unexpected news.

"In the middle of April, my doctor informed me we were not going to be doing the donor stem cell transplant because my cancer is such an aggressive form, they were certain it wouldn't work," she said.

Riding it out

Still, she and her family want to keep the momentum going to help others.

"My husband decided he was going to ride his horse across two counties, Haldimand and Norfolk … to raise awareness and keep people going," Adams said.

Brad sat on Sandor, his German warmblood horse, and galloped through the small Southern Ontario towns for 10 days. Their eldest daughter, Abby, rode with him on her quarter horse named Blondie.

Each of the towns they visited were sprinkled with orange bows tied up by locals and Adams' family.

Brad sat on Sandor, his German warmblood horse, and galloped through the small Southern Ontario towns for 10 days. Their eldest daughter, Abby, rode with him on her blonde, quarter horse named Blondie.(Submitted by Melanie Topp Steeves)

Adams has also received more than $11,000 in donations. She said all the money has gone toward the Juravinski Cancer Centre's stem cell research program.

She said she wants her story will inspire others to sign up as stem cell donors.

"It's such an easy thing to do and you can literally save a life anywhere in the world," Adams said.

"I cannot believe the generosity and kindness of people I don't even know … I'm blown away by the good of people."

In the meantime, Adams said she hopes to get back to work soon and life will feel more normal than it has in the past few months.

"We had a great life. We do have a great life. Hopefully we'll get back to it," she said.


Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email:

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