Air Force veteran shares powerful story about Stage IV breast cancer diagnosis through photographs

Marah Alindogan

Sheila McGlown was sitting at her desk when she experienced a burning pain she had never felt before.

"I would sneeze and it would burn. I was like, 'Something doesn't feel right.' I passed it off. Then I did it again," she said of the 2009 incident in an interview with AOL Lifestyle.

Sheila, a now-retired member of the Air Force, immediately went to her military doctor.

"I'm in this pain and I think it's my breast," Sheila told her physician.

"Usually breast cancer doesn't hurt like this, but we'll give you a mammogram," the doctor told her.

She immediately knew something was wrong after her doctor ordered an ultrasound. The first thing that she thought of? Her mother, who died of metastatic breast cancer in 2004.

A diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer (MBC), a late stage of the disease in which the cancer has spread beyond the breast, is different. There is no cure and in fact, a new study from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates more than 150,000 people are living with metastatic breast cancer.

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"Oh god," she remembered thinking.

A radiologist pulled Sheila into a hospital room, sat her down and showed her an image of her breast:

"You see all that white stuff? It's cancer in your right breast. What you were feeling was the cancer already spreading to your liver."

Sheila had Stage IV metastatic breast cancer -- news that caught her completely off guard.

"The first thing i thought about was, 'Oh my mom died and that's the same thing that's going to happen to me,'" she recalled.

The mother of one had just moved from Illinois from Virginia, where she didn't know anyone. After sharing the heartbreaking news with her friends and family, they dropped everything to be by her side.

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"All while I was going through this they were very supportive and always there. Some days I'm like, 'I don't feel like it' or 'I just want to feel sorry for myself.' I know that I can call any of them and they'll be like, 'No, you need to get up.'"

While it would be easy to give up, Sheila didn't. She continues to fight. Her biggest motivation? Her daughter.

"I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure she doesn't get this disease."

To spread awareness, Sheila has taken part in the #ThisIsMBC Serenity Project. Through the powerful and artful combination of body painting and underwater photography, Sheila was one of the 16 men and women living with MBC who revealed their stories to the world. In a nod to her military roots, she had the American flag painted on her body.

"I want women to feel beautiful even though you got this ugly, ugly disease. I want women to say, "If Sheila can get up to put on lipstick, get her nails done and feel beautiful, why can't I too?'" Sheila said. "I want them to see you can still have a fruitful, joyful, loving life even though you're battling this disease."

Sheila is not only an 8-year Stage IV breast cancer survivor, but also a loving mother, Air Force veteran and the epitome of a powerful woman. Her tone during our conversation is optimistic and strong, despite battling a disease with the odds stacked against her.

"It has made me a strong and resilient person," Sheila said of her cancer battle. "It made me realize that I do have a little courage."

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