Young cancer survivor giving back to conference that helped her

By Shondiin Silversmith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 27, 2013

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(Times photo – Ravonelle Yazzie)

TOP: Leukemia survivor, Shakira Begay, left, stands by her mother Marcella Begay at the 6th annual Arizona Myeloma Network/John Wayne Navajo Cancer Conference in Window Rock.

SECOND FROM TOP: Alex Froom, executive director of Rio Puerco Community Center, highlights the success of the center on Friday in Fort Defiance. The center, which has been open since 2011, is located at the Rio Puerco housing area.

W hen one sees a young Diné girl proudly singing the National Anthem in Navajo, the fact that she is a cancer survivor would probably never cross your mind – but that's exactly what Shakira Begay is.

At age nine, Begay, now 13, was diagnosed with Leukemia, a cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of blood cells to be produced and enter the bloodstream.

Begay's mother Marcella Begay said it all started in November 2009 when her daughter was experiencing intense back pains.

By the end of the year Marcella said her daughter was unable to walk because she had five compression factures on her spine.

After several doctor visits and still no real explanation for what was going on, Marcella said she took Shakira to the Phoenix Children's Hospital before she got her answer.

"On January 15, 2010 she was diagnosed with leukemia," said Marcella.

For Begay's treatment, she was referred to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque where she received treatment until May 2012 because her cancer went into remission, meaning that there was a decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute website.

"She's been off treatment for a whole year now. She's doing wonderful, everything's good," said Marcella, adding that her daughter only goes to the hospital every other month now for a check up.

Within that first year of being diagnosed, Begay attended the Arizona Myeloma Network/John Wayne Navajo Cancer Conference, and she was able to get valuable resources needed to get through the difficult time.

"Things I wanted to know were here," said Marcella, who attended this year's annual cancer conference at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock on Saturday.

"We were so drawn in that these people here actually helped us," said Marcella.

When asked about the biggest thing she took away from her first cancer conference, Begay said, "Support."

Arizona Myeloma Network Founder Barbara Kavanagh said when she first met Shakira, she was being wheeled into the Navajo Nation Museum doors in a wheelchair wearing a baseball cap.

"She was so tiny," Kavanagh recalled, adding that though Shakira was nine at the time, she looked five or six. "She was so sick and she could barely lift her head."

Kavanagh said when she saw Begay she knew it was Leukemia because she "that is the most common childhood cancer."

"I'm a mother and I was just touched by Shakira," Kavanagh said.

After seeing Shakira, Kavanagh made it her mission to help. She first pointed Marcella in the right direction to get financial help and chemotherapy treatment for her daughter.

"I think what the real miracle is, is that her mother heard about our conference," said Kavanagh. "I would do this for any child, I would do this for any adult. If you don't talk about it, if you don't ask for help then it's so hard because you'll feel so alone.

"Cancer is a very isolating disease because people don't really like talking about things that make them sad."

Of the support system, Kavanagh said, "We were here for her. If you go for help and if you look for help you really have a chance. All of this happened because she came to the conference and we were there."

Back then, Shakira was the one who needed help, but today, she is offering help.

"That's what makes them so important because they are educating others," Kavanagh added. "We are advocates for people with cancer."

Of her daugher, Marcella said, "She wanted to give something back to the conference because so many people helped us."

Since 2011, Shakira has been opening the AzMN/John Wayne Navajo Cancer Conference by singing the National Anthem in Navajo.

"I really admire a lot of people that come here to gather information," Marcella said. "When my daughter was first diagnosed with Leukemia I couldn't even remember what Leukemia was. You don't know anything about it until your family is diagnosed."

Contact Shondiin Silversmith at or 928-871-1138.