Robinson fighting cancer with a smile

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Shawna Robinson was always a popular draw at the race track.

When Shawna Robinson looks in the mirror today, she doesn't see the pioneer. She doesn't see the lady who, for an entire lifetime, has defied odds. She doesn't see the successful home-design entrepreneur or one of just three female faces to ever race in the Daytona 500.

What she sees is bald.

Bald doesn't lie. It is stark truth. When the mirror said bald, Stage 3 breast cancer became very real for Shawna Robinson.

Robinson is still coming to terms emotionally with what that means. It is treatable. But it's a long road. One day she is typically indomitable. She wakes ready to climb to the mountain's peak and scream down the valley that she is tough; she will not be deterred. This will not defeat her. This is merely an obstacle in a life spent hurdling them all.

The next day she can do little more than curl up and cry.

This is new ground for Robinson. She is not a sad person. She is never one to shy away from a challenge. She is accustomed to being strong when strong is difficult. But cancer, she said, requires a different kind of strong.

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"It's definitely testing me," Robinson said. "I have good days and bad days. What does pick me back up is that passion I've always had. No matter what I'm trying to do, I've always tried to do my best.

"And then I look in the mirror and I'm somewhere I never thought I'd be. You always think it's never going to happen to you. I'm as bald as a damn bald person can be! It's so weird! But hair grows back. I'm just glad I'm alive."

Robinson found a lump. And when she visited her doctor for another reason, she casually mentioned it. It was small and both figured it was nothing, but just for precautionary reasons the doctor said they should check it out. The next day the lump was biopsied. Two days later, doctors brought Robinson in, sat her down in a small room, and delivered the news that she had breast cancer.

It had spread to her lymph nodes. Fortunately it hadn't yet spread to her bones, but it was aggressive. They had to act now.

"It happened so quickly," she said. "From the time they said the word 'cancer,' I didn't hear anything else. It was like Charlie Brown -- 'blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.' "

She wanted to know the steps to recovery immediately. She had a fight to win. She waited a week for the surgeon to call. It felt like a year. Doctors ultimately chose chemotherapy first, not surgery.

Robinson said her HER2 test -- which measures for the protein human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, which promotes the growth of cancer cells -- was a "3-plus, which is the highest point." Doctors had to corral the aggressive cancer with chemo before they performed surgery. There would immediately be setbacks.

Originally, Robinson was to undergo chemotherapy treatments every three weeks. The medicine was gnarly. After the first two treatments it proved to be too much. She had a reaction that tightened her chest and throat, and increased her blood pressure. Doctors sent her to the emergency room for an echocardiogram and other heart testing.

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Shawna Robinson started 36th in the 2002 Daytona 500, but finished 24th. She became only the second woman to start a 500.

The three-hour visit proved her heart wasn't damaged, but her treatment schedule would change. It would be a longer, more inconvenient path. She would now have to spend six hours of every Friday in the chemo chair.

"I basically have a year of treatment ahead of me," she said.

As of today, she faces eight more chemo treatments before surgery. After those treatments, she will rest her body for three weeks then have surgery. She's not yet certain what option she will choose for surgery. She said she is leaning toward a double-mastectomy. Get it all now. Get it gone. Move on. But if the chemo shrinks the cancer enough she may not have to do that.

Following surgery she will rest her body for three more weeks, then undergo three more weeks of chemo. After that, it's "who knows how many radiation treatments."

She's managing it for now, the physical and emotional reaction. On good days she goes to work at Happy Chair, her interior and furniture design company. She wants to feel normal. Her stomach is extremely sensitive these days. On bad days she forces herself to listen to her body. She is admittedly stubborn, but knows she must listen.

Just days after she got the diagnosis, Robinson needed someone else to listen. She was sitting at a table at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, being honored for her influential career as a racecar driver. Robinson is one of just 16 women to ever compete at NASCAR's highest level. It was a day to be so proud.

She expected it to be a distraction from the troubling emotions within her. It proved otherwise. She picked at a salad and pretended to be happy. She was so sad. Lyn St. James was speaking, addressing NASCAR's female pioneers. Kelley Earnhardt-Miller was in attendance, and unaware that Robinson, her friend and racing idol, was, too.

When she heard Robinson's introduction, she looked across the room and waved. And during a break in the activities walked over to say hello and hug her friend. Robinson stood up, grabbed Earnhardt-Miller and pulled her from the room.

"I just hurt for her so bad at that moment," Earnhardt Miller said tearfully. "I was just in complete shock for her. And for me. Cancer is everywhere in the world these days. I had experienced leukemia with my cousin, Stacy. But this was, for me, the next person I felt close to that was experiencing it.

"She and I have had a special, close bond. She was totally my idol when I was racing Late Models in my 20s. She was trying to make it, and I wanted to be her. People now want to be Danica Patrick. I wanted to be Shawna Robinson."

The friends shared an intense cry. It was the first person Robinson had told. During a close, 15-plus year friendship, Robinson has decorated Earnhardt-Miller's home and shared countless stories about the trials of trying to make it in big-time NASCAR as a female.

"I've heard all her stories about not making it in racing, and my heart has cried for her from that angle," Earnhardt-Miller said. "So to hear 'breast cancer,' I lost it. I thought, 'Lord, one more thing to get her down?' In that moment we both just cried really hard. I wanted to know more. She just blurted it out."

There wasn't much time for more information just then. Earnhardt-Miller had to compose herself and go speak to the assemblage.

"We had to pull ourselves together," Earnhardt-Miller said. "It was very new for her. She said to me she felt like, if [she] could come there it would help [her]. I could be in a setting that was fun and exciting. But the actuality of it was it was too overwhelming to sit there knowing what she knew, with all these people around."

Robinson added, "I couldn't hold it together. I was angry. Then I was sad. I want to be the strong person that I've always tried to be in whatever I've ever tried to conquer, however s----- it's been. I've always moved to the next step to make the bad thing better. And Kelley was so supportive. Thank God she walked up to me at that moment. She was that person that I fell apart with. I'm so glad it was her."

Telling her kids was tough. They had just lost their grandfather the previous month to prostate cancer. He lived just one year after the diagnosis. Robinson was worried how they would respond. After she delivered that news, she sat down at her computer and told the world via Facebook she had breast cancer. The outpouring of support from NASCAR fans and industry persons was overwhelming.

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Shawna Robinson made eight Cup Series starts in her career.

It continues to be. Earnhardt-Miller and Sherry Pollex, Martin Truex Jr.'s girlfriend and daughter of former Busch Series team owner Greg Pollex, are organizing fundraisers to assist with medical expenses.

Bald, Robinson told me, is tough. But it gets prettier every day. Every day the mirror is kinder. She is reacquainted now with some of the scars from her childhood motorcycle accidents. She has new ideas for headdresses. Her style is funky. She's not thrilled with the current market options.

Just last week, when her hair all fell out, Robinson took a photograph of herself. No makeup. No scarves. She sent it to friends and family, including her sister and Earnhardt-Miller.

"She sent me her picture that first day, of her bald, no makeup," Earnhardt-Miller said. "She said, 'This is so scary.' I told her I see beauty. I see that person she is, the creative person, with ideas booming.

"I see the racecar driver, the woman, one of those 13 from the '50s all the way to now who did it. That's what I see. Not bald. She's strong. She's a fighter. I told her that the baldness is temporary, and all the other great things about her will surpass this period of being bald."

Robinson's sister responded with a moving reminder.

"I'll feel stronger and better every time I look in the mirror," Robinson said. "But it's almost like if you fall down and bust out your two front teeth -- there's really nothing you can do to fix that until it's fixed.

"But when I smile, I look a lot better than when I'm not. My sister reminded me of that. I sent her a picture when I lost my hair the other day. I sent her a picture of bald, not pretty at all. Then I sent her one with some makeup on, and a scarf on my head. And she said it doesn't matter if you have hair or not, you're beautiful when you smile.

"Just remember to keep smiling. Always keep smiling."

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