Shonel Bryant’s successful events styling business, Nomad Styling, came to a grinding halt in 2019 when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Her kids Smith (7) and Vogue (6) were just six and four years old at the time, and while her gut was telling her to shelter them from it entirely, the family used it as an opportunity to be honest about their feelings, and they pulled through it together. But just over six months after finishing her treatment and getting the all clear, the cancer returned. It was – to put it lightly – the worst.
But despite the many challenges to her mental and physical health, Shonel has fought hard to find her silver lining. She’s done it through carving out her own community through her popular platform Support Your Girls – a place where she and other people experiencing cancer have been able to find others that just get it, especially when they struggle to feel understood in their day-today lives. She also self-produced (along with Robot Army Productions) an incredible nine-part docu-series, Life On Standby, where she recorded some of the most intimate parts of her journey in the hopes that others would feel seen and heard. She is determined to be the success story she couldn’t find when she was looking for it.
Connection and understanding is so important to Shonel. Here, she tells us how she found it.
I read on your website that you lost your mother to stomach cancer. I am so sorry. You mention that that experience changed your life in the best possible way – what do you mean by that?
Losing my mother to stomach cancer was one of the hardest things I’ve gone through and continue to experience. I allowed myself to work through the stages of grief and came out the other side of it with an altered perspective on life, a beautiful one. My mum was a natural teacher, it has felt as though she’s continued teaching me through the afterlife. That truly feels like a gift.
While I still experience grief today, though in a different way, I am forever grateful for the lessons her death has taught me. It really confirmed something that mum used to often say to me: ‘Out of everything bad comes something good’. She really has taught me to find the silver lining. But I’ve taught myself that I need to slow down and feel it all before it begins to fully surface.
What year were you diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer? And where are you at now in your journey?
I was diagnosed in October 2019. I was 36 and my children were six and four at the time. I had six months of neoadjuvant chemotherapy, which was a challenging time as asking for help is not a natural strength of mine. After great results, I was able to just have a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy. After radiation on the site I was ‘in the clear’. While that time wasn’t as smooth sailing as I expected emotionally, I was happy and began attempting to get on with my new life.
It was a mere seven months after my treatment ended that I had a routine mammogram/ultrasound where they found I was one of 2% of people where the cancer had spread into a lymph node that was in a very unexpected place. The cancer was back! Due to COVID, we hadn’t even been able to go away and celebrate being ‘cancer free’ yet.
The aggressive nature of this rare type of cancer means that if it comes back, it happens fast and grows very rapidly. Since then, I have had another surgery, more radiation and am now on chemotherapy tablets for six months. I have another four months to go.
How did you tell your kids, and how did they respond?
Despite instinctively wanting to shelter them from it entirely, one thing I was very clear on (while so much of my reality at the time was a blur) was that I did NOT want to instil fear in the children. Cancer to them was merely a word that had no emotional weight. We were quite direct with the kids but focused on the facts.
There were some really fabulous books that helped them visually understand. I also took lots of video footage and photos so I could show them the machines and the hospitals as well. We ensured they knew they could ask us if there was anything more they wanted to know, and we kept that door open while updating them with progress along the way.
We exposed them to our emotions and struggles at times where we could have hidden them. Instead, we used these as opportunities to open up a dialogue around the importance of feeling our emotions and that it’s okay to feel scared or sad.
There were times I cried and they comforted me; they literally took me into their arms like I was the child and told me to ‘Feel it all’ (as I do with them). Even recalling that gets me emotional; these are moments that stick with you for life.
And what about Luke? How did he process it?
I think Luke and I have different views on this. To me, whilst I knew he wasn’t in denial I believe Luke was quite distant with how he processed it. Rather than speaking to me about it, he dealt with it on his own and carried the weight of it himself. This was extremely challenging for me and made me feel isolated. I know this was not his intention at all, however it was my experience and reality at the time.
It’s been one of the most challenging parts of this for me personally, the toll this has taken on our relationship. While these photos may depict us in a happy way, the reality is we have a lot of struggles on the daily we are actively working on. Luke and I have been together for 16 years, this experience has really highlighted our relationship dynamics, which have been completely flipped since my diagnosis. We still very much have happy moments, but cancer has made life more serious temporarily.
Can you tell me a little about Support Your Girls? Why does it exist, and what do you hope to communicate?
I had a successful event styling business called Nomad Styling and was set up to continue doing international weddings in 2019 and then I was diagnosed and shut it down immediately to focus on my healing. In turn, I had no income. While loved ones rallied and raised funds for us, we needed something else so I could just focus on my healing.
I started selling slogan T-shirts that say ‘Support your girls’, meaning your breasts and women. Each T- shirt comes with a ‘self check’ card, informing the recipient how to perform a self check and encouraging them to create a habit of checking on the first of every month.
50% of the proceeds go towards setting up a youth education program that will be rolling out into schools over the years to come on the importance of self checks and knowing their risk factors.
It has become a platform, a community where I share my experience as I navigate the many challenges that people going through cancer can – and will likely – face. It started out as me sharing to help others, and has turned into an incredible community that truly holds me when I am down. I feel so engaged and connected to my followers and am incredibly grateful for their loyalty and support.
I have so many further ideas in the works on how to reach people in more engaging ways, that I really look forward to achieving in the future.
What advice or guidance would you give someone who is going through something similar to what you have been through?
As with most traumas or challenging experiences, often it’s difficult to process and grieve at the same time as it’s too fresh or urgent. Our nervous system tells us it’s not safe to go there, first we have to survive, then we get to step back and comprehend the situation.
Allow all of the emotions to flow through you as they surface. If you get in the way of them and try to numb or suppress them it will only hinder your experience. It may feel better short term, but it will catch up with you.
Allowing that energy to flow in and out of you, the good, the bad and the horrific. It’s extremely uncomfortable yet necessary and helps you process what the hell is happening to you so you can move forward.
What brings you joy, and what are you hopeful for?
It’s truly the small moments on the daily that I now fully drop into and truly feel grateful for. It amplifies the impact they have on my body and it feels incredible. Pure joy to me are things like: the kids jumping into bed in the mornings, the sunshine on my face flickering through the trees, feeling the cool breeze on my skin, deep conversations with loved ones, my feet in the sand at the beach, going to therapy and witnessing my growth. Ah… even thinking about these things brings me joy. There are so many more I could list.
I am so hopeful for clear scans in the future, I have a routine full body PET scan next month and I am both excited and deeply fearful at the same time. The fear can be crippling, but there comes a point where all you can do is surrender.