When Shannon McKenna and Kristopher Cowan fell in love as teenagers, there were no warning signs they’d both be diagnosed with cancer in their 20s.
Healthy and young, they were planning their future together when back-to-back health crises suddenly struck.
His symptoms started first — a tumor discovered at 23 just as he was thinking of proposing to McKenna. She was his caregiver as he went through treatment.
Then, as they were planning their wedding, she found a lump at 28. It was Cowan’s turn to take care of her during dark times when she didn’t think she’d make it to 30.
The couple, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, say they have a unique perspective of each other after the ordeal.
“It challenged our relationship a lot because we were 20-somethings put through the ringer,” McKenna, now 31, tells TODAY.com.
“But I think now hindsight, looking back at everything, we were made for each other because who else could get you through something like this than somebody who’s done it before?”
“It brought our relationship together much stronger,” Cowan, now 29, adds.
“Every day, we got up and we just knew this wasn’t going to stop us. We were here to beat this, and we’re going to live our life for us and live it in the moment.”
Mystery leg pain
McKenna and Cowan met in 2010 when they were both in high school and attended a week-long accounting camp — not the most romantic of settings.
“We were in rundown dorms and in old classrooms. It was not glamorous,” she recalls.
They were both outgoing and quickly became friends. He recalls that she was “absolutely one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.” They soon began dating and have been together pretty much ever since.
She became a nurse; he went into marketing.
In late 2017, Cowan thought he pulled his groin muscle while playing sports. When the pain persisted on and off for months, McKenna insisted he make an appointment with her primary care physician.
During that visit, in April 2018, the doctor immediately ordered an ultrasound. It found a mass in Cowan’s right testicle. Surgery confirmed it was stage 2B testicular cancer.
“I was about a year-and-a-half out of college and I was thinking, ‘There’s no way you’re telling me that at 23 years old, you think I have cancer. Like, that’s not possible, right?’” he recalls.
Cowan’s plans to propose to McKenna were put on hold as he focused on treatment and medical bills.
He underwent 16 weeks of chemotherapy and endured complications, including blood clots in his lungs. It was McKenna who alerted his doctor something was wrong after she noticed Cowan had a high pulse at night. Cowan was “eternally grateful” that she had saved his life once again.
“I joke around that I channeled nurse Shannon for 50% of his cancer journey and then girlfriend Shannon was at home,” McKenna says.
“It’s very different to be challenged with ‘in sickness and in health’ before you can take those vows.”
New diagnosis leads to ‘crash wedding’
Cowan’s treatment for testicular cancer was successful and the couple got engaged in 2019. They set the wedding date for June 6, 2020 — the anniversary of their meeting at that accounting camp a decade earlier.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. They pushed the date to September 2020 and then again to September 2021.
On April 27, 2021, three years to the day since Cowan’s diagnosis, McKenna was in the shower when she felt “a very smooth egg- or golf ball-sized round thing” on the outside of her right breast.
The next day at work, she walked into a nurse practitioner’s office and asked to be checked. An ultrasound and biopsy followed. McKenna found her lump on a Monday, and by that Friday, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She had no family history of the disease and no genetic mutations — the only risk factor was being a plus-size woman, she says. Cowan called it a gut punch. “This has got to be a dream; we’re going to wake up. This can’t be real,” he remembers thinking.
It was stage 3C — the stage before metastatic breast cancer — and turned out to be two tumors. One was triple-negative breast cancer, which spreads quickly and has a worse prognosis than other types. It meant “extremely aggressive” treatment, McKenna says.
“I was 28, Kris was 26, and we had to decide if I ever wanted to have children because it would delay my treatment to preserve embryos,” she recalls.
“I remember Kris saying, ‘No, save your life. I can’t even think about kids right now if you’re not going to be here for them.’… We made the decision not to pursue fertility and to try to get my chemo in sooner.”
McKenna wept as she talked to her parents after her diagnosis. She remembers her father saying, “You need to just get married. Don’t wait anymore.”
Caregiver roles reversed
Cowan canceled all the wedding venues and the honeymoon cruise they had booked for September 2021, and began planning a small “crash wedding” that would take place in two weeks instead.
McKenna had already started chemo and was feeling sick. She worried whether her hair would hold up long enough so she could wear her mother’s veil. The couple practiced their first dance in the infusion treatment center.
They got married on May 21, 2021, in the church she attended as a child. The reception was held in her parents’ backyard.
The next day, McKenna’s hair started falling out in chunks. If they had they waited longer, she wouldn’t have been able to wear her mom’s veil.
“We just did this kind of shotgun-style wedding, which was exactly what we needed,” Cowan recalls. “Everything worked out. Then she started fully just focusing on treatment.”
McKenna had a double mastectomy in November 2021 followed by radiation. She received four different types of chemotherapies to target the triple-negative breast cancer, plus two additional chemos for the second tumor, which was HER2-positive.
She officially finished treatment in October 2023, though she still needs another surgery to repair skin that was damaged during radiation.
When it was Cowan’s turn to be a cancer caregiver, “I was so nervous. ‘Am I going to be as good as she was when she was taking care of me?’” he recalls thinking. “It was hard to now be the person watching the one you love go through this.”
Both spouses sought counseling to cope with how cancer upended their lives. They now hope to help others affected by the disease. Both work for Norton Healthcare in Louisville, Kentucky — she’s a nurse in cancer research; he works in marketing for the Norton Research Institute.
The couple is now finally able to start planning their honeymoon. She’s hoping for a cruise that will take them somewhere with pristine blue water that’s clear to the bottom.
“I just want to be able to celebrate what we’ve done,” McKenna says.
“We got to see what the other person went through,” Cowan adds. “Watching her just made me a stronger person.”