Desperate or Genius? Learn How This Young Woman Stuck It to Cancer

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The Prime of her Life — Primed for Disaster

In the prime of her life, Shell was the picture of good health. In fact, she later told reporters during an interview that throughout her whole life, she was the type of person who never got sick. Shell rarely considered the possibility of battling the common cold — much less anything worse.

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Unfortunately, Shell’s good health had an unexpected — and devastating — side effect. The health that had blessed her for her entire life ultimately blinded her to dangerous warning signs of a pending crisis. 

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An Average Girl With a Not-so-Average Future

Michelle Rowe, or “Shell,” as she calls herself, was a typical 20-year-old girl. As a third-year film student, her life was average — and she liked it that way. She worked as a bartender at The Chequers, a homey, local pub in her town just outside of London. 

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Her life, while certainly not perfect, was comfortable. Surrounded by friends and loved ones, Shell wasn’t expecting any sort of change: She’d continue her studies, graduate, and pursue her dream career in film.

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An Ideal Life… Destined for a Shocking Twist in Plans

Shell was accepted to a study abroad program at California State University in the United States. Understandably excited, Shell was preparing to leave on her new adventure. 

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However, the last thing that Shell expected was for her exciting adventure in America to be unexpectedly derailed for one much, much less pleasant. 

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A Harsh Awakening

Rather than sunshine and palm trees, unbeknownst to Shell, her adventure was to be one of hospital beds, pain, and long months of harsh medical treatments. 

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Throughout her journey, Shell would face hospitalization, devastating side effects, mental illness, and isolation, leading her to desperation for any way to cope — and cope she did… in a shocking way. 

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A Strange Lump

In August of 2019, one week before Shell was to leave for California, her girlfriend noticed a lump on Shell’s neck. Shell remarked later that she was surprised she’d never noticed it, given its size.

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Not expecting much, Shell decided it was worth a visit to the doctor… only to ultimately discover that the previously-unnoticed lump was, in fact, quite serious. 

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Life Shattered as Catastrophe Strikes

All at once, Shell’s life pivoted. Her plans to travel to America shattered to pieces as doctors struggled to determine the source of the lump. While her diagnosis was unclear, the only sure thing was that she’d need to undergo treatment — serious treatment. 

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Initially assuming a thyroid problem, doctors urged Shell to undergo first one, then two biopsies. It wasn’t until about a month later that they were finally able to determine an official diagnosis.

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Doctors Forced to Announce Terrifying News

Eventually, in September of 2019, came the shocking news. Shell had contracted stage four Non-Hodgkin lymphoma: a disease that, once contracted, kills over a third of those diagnosed

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In that moment, Shell realized with dread that her life was about to drastically change. Any plans, any dreams, any suitcases she’d packed — each and every one was soon to be rapidly dismantled.

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Shell’s Plans Crumble With New Diagnosis; Forced to Change Everything

In what seemed like an instance, Shell swapped sunscreen and sunglasses for IV lines and hospital gowns; sunny convertible rides for anxiety-filled doctor consultations. “All of a sudden, I get hit with a stage four cancer diagnosis,” she shared of the memory. Obviously, her immediate — perhaps permanent — future was changing drastically. California was going to have to wait.

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Exciting plans to learn more about film, her chosen profession, fell by the wayside as Shell and her family instead found themselves learning about her diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment options — an overwhelming mass of information. 

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Too Fast to Comprehend

Everything was moving at hyperspeed. From the initial doctor’s appointment, to the biopsies, to the seemingly infinite consultations and learning and planning and preparing — it was all happening almost too quickly to keep up.

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“From the day I got the lump checked things just felt like they went at 100mph,” Shell told reporters. And as overwhelming as things were, they weren’t about to slow down any time soon.

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The Stink of Death

Shell was terrified. Cancer, no matter the form, carries the stink of death. In 2022 alone, 609,360 people are estimated to die from some form of cancer — just in the United States. 

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Though Shell’s doctors encouraged her that her prospects for survival were strong, it was impossible to alleviate the underlying fear that things would get worse. And unfortunately, as would happen, get worse they did.

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“The first thing I thought about was — oh God, I’m going to lose my hair.” 

Soon into her treatment, Shell was confronted with one of her deepest fears: hair loss. It’s easy to think of hair as something that’s vain or shallow — culture commonly teases women (and men, at times) for being “too vain” and spending too much time, attention, and money on such a superficial trait.

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For Shell, however, hair was more than functional — or even cosmetic: It was a large part of her identity, her presentation, her sense of self. Without her hair, Shell felt that she risked losing an integral part of herself.

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“My whole life, I’d hid behind my long hair”

Shell’s hair, she explained, held great meaning to her. It was a defense; a wall — something with which many girls can resonate, particularly shy ones. For Shell, her hair was a representation of her feminine identity. 

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Shell’s hair was a defense mechanism: It was a means of obscuring the parts of her that she was too afraid to display openly to the world. Losing her hair meant losing that buffer, that defense — a thoroughly terrifying concept. Unfortunately, chemo goes hand in hand with hair loss, and Shell was forced to accept that harsh reality. 

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A Rollercoaster of Emotions

As Shell struggled with the emotional damage of losing her hair, she also had to deal with the strain of several extended hospital stays. In fact, she’d ultimately find herself on a rollercoaster of emotions as she was put through treatment and declared healed, at which point she dared to believe she could return to her regular life — only to have those hopes dashed by a second, more severe diagnosis.

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Ultimately, Shell would spend over three years battling cancer, much of that time during COVID and its many restrictions. And as if a forced hospital stay weren’t bad enough already, COVID restrictions often prevented Shell’s family and loved ones from visiting, forcing Shell to endure her devastating treatment alone.

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Trapped in the Hospital — Felt “Desperate”

During one ten-week stint, as she stared at the drab walls and inhaled the suffocating odors of sickness and antiseptic, Shell shared that she felt simply desperate for happiness. She was desperate “for serotonin,” to be precise. 

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Trapped in the bleak, joyless hospital room, confined to a bed, wired in with tubes and IV lines, she had little to do but reflect on her terrifying diagnosis and languishing dreams. Unable to pursue those dreams, she struggled to find joy in this prison-like stage of her life.

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Lacking Something Fundamental: Happiness

Previous to her diagnosis, Shell had been active. Now, bedridden, at times even unable to move, and afflicted by paralysis and anxiety, she felt acutely a different sort of pain: depression. Shell mentioned that during this period that she’d been “desperate for serotonin”; serotonin is essentially the means by which the brain regulates mood. A lack of serotonin leads to a host of unpleasant symptoms — the foremost of which is crushing depression. 

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In the slang dictionary of Gen Z, “serotonin” is commonly used to refer to the general concept of happiness or general positivity. By saying that she was “desperate for serotonin,” then, Shell more or less meant that she was desperate for some sort of positivity.

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Trapped

Options for entertainment when bedridden in a hospital are slim, to say the least, and things were no different for Shell. Dreams are only as good as their ability to be chased — and trapped as she was in the hospital, Shell was (at least for the moment) unable to pursue hers.

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To make matters worse, Shell found herself battling with mental illness — her anxiety was “through the roof.” Of her terrifying bouts of paralysis, Shell explained, “it feels like you’re locked in your body.”

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Plagued by Nightmares

Worse yet, Shell found herself battling the paralysis again: this time, in her dreams. Gasping, Shell woke night after night, “wrenched in sweat.” She explained, “I’d been crying in my sleep because it had felt like I’d been paralysed in a dream for hours.”

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Eventually, doctors were able to explain: Shell had contracted a rare side effect called neurotoxicity. Neurotoxicity essentially means that exposure to toxic, manmade substances alter nervous system activity. For Shell, this meant that her chemotherapy had tweaked her nervous system — temporarily disconnecting her mind from her limbs.

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“It was horrendous… there was nothing I could do”

Shell felt — and often, was — absolutely powerless to do anything at all, sometimes even to do so little as to move a finger. Sometimes, she later explained, she could will herself into lifting an arm, but only after minutes of strain. 

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Little wonder, then, that she felt desperate for some small speck of happiness. Hospitals by nature aren’t uplifting places, and they don’t pair well with anxiety, isolation, and paralysis.

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Desperate to Cope

So… Shell found something that she could do. A little something, a trick that she decided (for fun) to share with her friends and family on TikTok — perhaps, it’d bring them some degree of entertainment as they battled with the pandemic. 

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As Shell began to upload video after video, little did she expect that her tiny serotonin-boosting project was to take the entire internet by storm. 

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Worried Father Keeps Company

In the middle of a particularly depressing ten-week hospital stay, Shell and her father stared at each other: Shell smothered in boredom and her father unable to help, but wishing desperately to lessen his daughter’s obvious discomfort. 

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With absolutely nothing else to do, they both did something… surprising. That tiny something, a joke between father and daughter, turned out to be the “something” that started it all.

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The First Puff

Shell’s first puff wasn’t drugs or a cigarette — it was a cocoa puff! Shell shared of that moment, “We looked over at the cocoa puffs on the shelf and thought… let’s stick those to your head.” The idea was, well, absurd — but, like the cocoa puff, it stuck!

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That was the beginning. Shell and her father covered her head in tiny cocoa puffs — it wasn’t hair, but it was certainly amusing. And they didn’t stop there. Shell and her father filmed their shenanigans, and coupled the absurdity of the situation with Shell’s wry humor, genuine smile, and relatability. 

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Shocking Videos Released Online

As Shell uploaded video after video, her videos gained traction — and quickly. Though her usual videos were fairly popular, regularly gaining several thousand views, her first cereal video skyrocketed to an astounding 1.3 million views. New followers began commenting, asking her to try using different cereals and candies. 

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“We did cheerios; that’s one of my favorites,” Shell shared. “We did strawberry laces. I’ve done diamontes and crystals, which gave very much Met Gala.” 

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An Unexpected Coping Method

Rather than cave to her horrifying situation, Shell held forcefully to her innate creativity — her dream was to pursue a career in film, after all. Through that creativity, she stumbled upon an entirely unexpected coping method. 

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Pasting cereal to one’s head certainly isn’t conventional, neither in the realm of film nor in the realm of traditional art — but who’s to say that art has ever been conventional? The beauty of this coping mechanism lies in its message of determined positivity even in the face of absolute misery.

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A Viral Sensation

Sticking cereal to her head was intended to add some amusement to her painfully dull existence. It did just that — not just for Shell, but for the hundreds of thousands of cancer-afflicted and cancer-free alike who watched her videos and found joy in her raw, comedic take on the depressing situation. 

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And it did more than just add amusement: Shell’s videos lit a spark, inspiring those hundreds of thousands whose lives she touched through her videos. 

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Hundreds of Thousands of Lives Touched

Shell’s unexpected coping mechanism has shed light on a struggle that afflicts hundreds of thousands of women every year. She’s created a voice, a dialogue, and a larger community, empowering women in their struggles with cancer treatment and hair loss.

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Shell’s decision to take such a personal struggle and display it — comedically, frankly, openly — on the endless stage of social media was a demonstration of incredible courage. 

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A Voice for Women in the Cancer Community

In a world in which social pressure for perfection abounds, Shell decided to do something different, to be vulnerable — not only with her diagnosis, but with her story, feelings, and physical appearance. And she figured — why not continue to share her journey with the outside world? “There’s not a lot of positive dialogue around [hair loss],” she explains in a TikTok video. 

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“Hair loss is something that people, particularly women in the cancer community, struggle with so badly,” Shell tells the world in the same video — one of the hundreds that she would eventually release, documenting her struggle and surprising coping mechanism. 

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Turning Desperation to Empowerment

So, Shell decided to turn what had begun as a desperate coping mechanism, a stretch to escape from the depression and anxiety of chemotherapy and nightmares, into a global force to empower women dealing with the struggle of hair loss and chemotherapy. 

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By being brave enough to betray societal expectations of perfection, Shell joined the small number of women who are speaking out, changing the dialogue on cancer treatment and recovery.  

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A Happy Ending

Fortunately, Shell’s journey turned into a happy one. She was able to receive a successful cell transplant from her brother that battled her cancer into remission, though her healing process remains ongoing. 

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The transplant process was significantly more difficult than Shell, her family, or any of her doctors expected, but in May of 2022, Shell was finally able to return home and begin to resume a “normal” life. 

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Continuing the Campaign

Shell has continued her campaign, uploading video after video and interacting personally with her followers — and continuing to interact as those followers grew to 635,000 on TikTok over the course of her journey. 

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She’s demonstrated that women are more than a sum of their features; that even robbed of their most uniquely “feminine” feature, hair, they can still be strong, powerful, funny, beautiful, inspiring — whatever they desire to be.

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Shell’s Hope

As Shell’s journey continues, she uploads regular videos to her TikTok channel. Ranging in content from raw and real conversation to arrestingly comedic, Shell’s videos continue to amass a community and promote healthy, open conversation around a topic that’s historically been shrouded in darkness and stigma. 

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In a world in which open dialogue around hair loss is almost nonexistent, Shell hopes that her videos will continue to empower women who, like her, are battling with the stigma and pain that stem from female baldness. In a YouTube video that she posted back in May of 2020, about two long years before her most recent hospital release, Shell shared a simple statement that, even then, summed up her mission in sharing her story to the world: “I’m doing this for the people. This isn’t for me.”

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