Sheila Johnson-Glover knew something was wrong when her doctor asked her to sit down after a routine mammogram in December 2009.
"Uh-oh," she thought. That had never happened before. She was instructed get an ultrasound and an MRI. When Johnson-Glover, then 43, met with the doctor again, he showed her the scans.
"You see this white stuff?" he said. "That's breast cancer that has metastasized to your liver and ribs." He told her she had stage 4 breast cancer.
Johnson-Glover didn't know what to think. Her mother had died of breast cancer about a dozen years earlier.
"How many stages are there?" she asked.
"Well, you're at it," the doctor said.
Johnson-Glover, now 49, worked at Scott Air Force Base as a records manager. Her best friend's husband was dying of prostate cancer. When he died a few months after her diagnosis, she called her friend bawling.
"I'm scared I'm going to die. I'm scared I'm going to leave my daughter," she cried.
"Sheila, stop it," her friend said. "And stay off the internet." There are women living with stage 4 breast cancer beyond the five-year survival rate, she said.
Johnson-Glover took her words to heart. In addition to an 11-hour surgery to remove her right breast and 13 lymph nodes, she underwent nine months of chemotherapy. She took a medical retirement after 25 years in the Air Force.
The aim was to stop the spread of the disease. After a year and a half of no growth, the cancer started progressing again. She went back on chemo. The doctors declared her disease stable in August 2013.
Two years later, she embarked on an adventure that would change the way she saw her battle with cancer. It started when she noticed a Facebook post from a friend who also had stage 4 cancer. She was raising money for a trip to South Africa. Johnson-Glover, who had always wanted to take a missionary trip, decided to apply for the same program, even though it wasn't a religious trip.
Terri Wingham, a breast cancer survivor, founded the nonprofit A Fresh Chapter that runs the program. She has taken 60 participants since 2011 to volunteer at various international destinations to heal the emotional scars that cancer leaves.
"When you get sick, you feel really unlucky," she explained. "We create an opportunity for people to feel lucky again." She wants survivors to see themselves as empowered rather than a victim of a disease. The program costs $5,000, and about half the participants receive some subsidy or scholarship.
Johnson-Glover started fundraising online. She emailed friends and sent letters. She was still far from the goal and discouraged until an anonymous donor offered to match $1,500 if she could raise it. Then, she won a grant from the Silver Linings Foundation for $1,800.
She made it. She flew out from Chicago to New Delhi in March, where she met 13 other men and women who are cancer survivors. She and three others would be working at a school in the slums for 3- to 7-year-olds. She would be teaching English and other basic lessons.
They volunteered every morning until noon during the two-week trip, and then took part in group activities, such as learning how to breathe using yoga techniques. A deep bond developed between the entire group.
"I was able to share my story with people who knew how I felt," Johnson-Glover said.
On their last day in New Delhi, with all the children clamored around her to say goodbye, one of the teachers handed her note.
"Thank you for all you have done," it said. "Though thank you is not enough." Johnson-Glover started to cry.
"I realized it wasn't what we could give them. What mattered to them was our presence."
She and her co-travelers visited the Taj Mahal. Johnson-Glover was struck with the realization that she was not her cancer. She was not her treatment. She felt inspired to do more.
Each of the cancer survivors attended a burning ceremony before they left India. They wrote down what they wanted to leave behind. She wrote 'negativity' and threw it in the fire pit. "I have no space for it my life right now."
She came back to Swansea, Illinois, and continues to volunteer as an advocate for breast cancer survivors. She is graduating next month with a Master in Business Administration from McKendree University. She has inspired her daughter to want to go on a missionary trip.
She said her experience has shown her daughter that no matter what you go through in life, you can still make it. Johnson-Glover admits that there is always a fear with which she lives.
"I don't let it consume me," she said. "If fear consumes me, I'm letting cancer win. And I refuse to let cancer win." She was devastated when she lost her mother, who had been her best friend. So, when she was diagnosed, she realized she needed to fight to help find a cure.
"I need to fight hard. I don't want this to happen to my daughter," she said. "That's why I advocate so much -- for her. It's not about me anymore. It's about my daughter."