Dr. Lillian Walker Shelton

Alumna, Class of 2018

Dr. Lillian Walker SheltonDegree

Counselor Education and Supervision

What inspired you to go into your career field?

It’s really a funny story – my older brother is a social worker, his wife is a social worker, my brother-in-law is a social worker. So I was like, ‘I don’t want to be a social worker. I want to be a counselor.’ I was a legal secretary from 2006 to 2009, but I wanted to do more to help people – and I didn’t want to go to school for social work because of all these other social workers in my family! So, I decided to instead go to school for counseling.

I was doing a fellowship at that time through a group called the Younger Women’s Task Force, and I would be involved in women’s empowerment circles at a place called STRIVE DC. A lot of the women in the group said they wanted assistance but didn’t feel comfortable, but they felt comfortable talking to me. So, that propelled me to go to graduate school at Trinity Washington University for counseling. Once I did that, I worked as a community support specialist in D.C., but I thought to myself that I still really wanted to do more. I saw an ad for Marymount’s doctoral program in Counseling, and thought that this would enable me to really help more people and be creative. I applied in 2014, and now eight years later, here I am.

Tell us about some of your experiences through Marymount’s program.

It was really great – there was freedom and a lot of opportunities. One opportunity I had was through an internship to work at SOME, So Others Might Eat. I worked at the day program there and I would sometimes help with groups and do individual counseling. I had a desire to learn about counseling internationally as well, and I had an opportunity through Global Trauma Research to go to Haiti in 2017 and do counselor education there, where I was teaching people who were teachers, nurses and regular community members about basic things with mental health and how mental illnesses can develop.

How did you originally get involved in cervical cancer awareness efforts?

Unfortunately, our mother passed away in 1996 from cervical cancer – and when it happened, I really had a lot of questions. When I moved here to the DMV area, I met a woman named Tamika Felder who had a nonprofit organization called ‘Tamika and Friends.’ I began working with her and telling my story about my mom and everything, and we would do different things to raise awareness. Every year, my family from Philadelphia would come down for a walkathon and we would raise money, and it was just really putting cervical cancer awareness out there.

Tell us about your own diagnosis of cancer.

When the pandemic was first happening, that’s when I found out I had breast cancer. I was at work and I noticed a lump at my collarbone, and I went and got a chest x-ray at the emergency room. They said everything looked fine, but my primary care doctor told me to get a mammogram, which all women over 40 should definitely do. When I did that, I thought everything was fine but three days later they called me and said they saw something, and recommended I get a diagnostic mammogram. As you can imagine, by the end of that I was just absolutely in tears, and they told me that it looked like I had cancer developing in my left breast. The good thing about it was they caught it very early, and I had what they call stage zero breast cancer – but it was in two different areas that were not close to each other, so because of that I had to have very radical treatment and get a double mastectomy.

Because of the pandemic, some of my medical treatment was amended – for instance, I couldn’t get reconstructive surgery because all plastic surgery was deemed elective. Having a potentially deadly illness during the pandemic was an interesting experience for me, but it did put me in a position where I realized that while before I was working with these people who had cervical cancer because of my mom, now I’m working with people who have breast cancer because of me. When you talk to people who have had cancer and you get that diagnosis, it really does change your life a lot.

How did it affect your mental health at the time?

You wonder ‘why did this happen to you’ and ‘what does this mean,’ but you go through it day by day. You can be upset, you can cry and you can ask for help. For me, it made me think about taking care of myself better. You definitely see how, you know, ‘I am not invincible’ and ‘stuff can happen to me.’ So during my recovery, I starting doing my thing of walking every day just to get out of the house and keep my body moving. I lost about 40 pounds.

Also, I always say that every good counselor should have their own counselor, too. When this happened, I got counseling from a service called Cancer Care, and now my current counselor is from the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, where they help people who have had cancer and are recovering from cancer. I was like, ‘I need all the help that I can get.’ I’m in recovery now – I’m cancer-free, and I was very fortunate. Some people have to get chemotherapy, they have to get radiation, and I didn’t have to do that.  

How important is it to raise awareness about mental health support for cancer patients?

Even before I found out I had breast cancer, Tamika would ask me to talk to people about the importance of mental health and getting support – and also, because I was a caretaker for my mother, the importance of getting support for your mental health when you’re a caretaker. What I’ve been doing now is speaking through my friend’s church, raising awareness on my own platform on Facebook and doing individual therapy. A lot of times when people find out, they’re terribly depressed and don’t know how to handle it. It’s devastating to find out, but after some time, it’s important to reach out and get support.

You can’t do cancer alone. Some things you can do alone – you can ride a bicycle alone, you can even paint your house alone. But cancer, unfortunately, is something you can’t do by yourself. You have to really get help – so getting help from your friends or family, or someone who’s a professional helper like myself, is really important.