Red hair in a cute pixie cut has replaced the long blond tresses Shawna Robinson wore in a ponytail during her stock car racing days. Her slender frame has grown even thinner from the chemotherapy and radiation treatments that have bombarded her body during a yearlong battle with breast cancer.
Still, the spunk and infectious smile that always have been Robinson's trademarks remain.
This spring marks a new beginning for Robinson, one year and two months after she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. An April 29 visit to her oncologist revealed that she probably won't have to take her final chemo treatment, scheduled for May 11. A scan will be performed and then Robinson hopes the port in her upper right chest will be removed, signaling the cancer's remissive state.
It's been an arduous battle, and Robinson, 50, cites the support of her children, her extended family, the racing community and her work in helping her navigate the way.
"It's made me so grateful for having the people around me that I have," Robinson said. "I think it's made me appreciate life so much because you never know when it's not going to be there. You have to take advantage of every day you have and make the most of it."
A family faces cancer -- again
For Robinson's two children, their mother's diagnosis in March 2014 seemed surreal. Less than two months earlier, they had lost their 69-year-old grandfather, Dale Clark, to prostate cancer. Robinson's teenage son, Tanner, had moved in with his grandparents after his grandfather's diagnosis. When the Clarks informed their four grandchildren of their grandfather's illness, they called a family meeting. He told them he would fight the cancer and defeat it, but a year later he was gone. Now, there was another family meeting.
"The last family meeting was when they told us about our grandfather, so we knew it wasn't good," said Robinson's 17-year-old daughter, Samantha, a senior at Charlotte Christian School. "My brother and I looked at each other like, 'What could this be about?' We didn't really know what to do at the time she told us because we had just had that conversation about our grandfather. They told us all the same things. We didn't know exactly what to think about her. My brother and I felt helpless."
The teenagers' grandmother, Sue Clark, immediately had everyone move into her home. Robinson was caring for her mother at her house, so her brother assumed those responsibilities. Sue had not yet had time to grieve her husband's death, and now she was returning to the same hospital and interacting with the same medical personnel who had treated her husband of 48 years.
Samantha and Tanner frequently stayed with their grandparents as children because Robinson and their father, Jeff Clark, traveled extensively with their racing careers. They already had a room there, so the move wasn't a major adjustment.
"Even though she and Jeff are divorced, she has always been a big part of our family," Sue said of Robinson. "It just made it easier for everybody involved.''
Sue became Robinson's primary caregiver for seven months, though everyone assisted with her trips to chemotherapy and helped her cope with the ordeal. She described Robinson's diagnosis as "devastating" and "probably one of the hardest things the whole family has encountered."
Robinson readily admits she's proud of the strength her teenage children have exhibited during the last year, always attempting to keep a positive attitude. They constantly reminded her she was strong, amazing and beautiful, and that her hair would return. They always looked for ways to help her.
"I would tell her she had always been a fighter and I've always looked up to her, that she's going to get through it because she's been through a lot so I knew this wouldn't stop her either," Samantha said.
Tanner, 19, delayed going off to college for a year, opting to attend Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte so he could remain close to his mother. At one point, he provided support by trading his long hair for a crew cut.
"The kids really embraced her," said Jeff Clark. "Shawna was really brave the way she handled it. She went head into it like she's always done with everything else she's ever done. The mentality of being aggressive and hard-paced to fight something off is the right approach and I think that's what saved her."
The racing community's embrace
Robinson's strength was evident during the two decades she raced. She's one of just 16 women to compete at NASCAR's highest level and one of three, along with Janet Guthrie and Danica Patrick, to race in the Daytona 500.
It was in ARCA, however, where after the birth of her children she enjoyed most of her stock car racing success. In 27 races over a four-year period, she recorded five top-five and 14 top-10 finishes, one pole and led 85 laps. The 2000 season was her best, as she placed sixth in the standings, the first top-10 in that series by a woman.
Even though Robinson hadn't driven in more than a decade, when her breast cancer battle became known, the racing community rallied around her. An interior designer since hanging up her driver's helmet, she handled jobs for Ryan and Krissie Newman, Martin Truex Jr. and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex, and Ray and Erin Evernham.
"It was an outlet for me," Robinson said. "I could maintain some realness. I would forget I had [cancer] until I looked in the mirror and I was bald. I liked having a responsibility to somebody, but I had to listen to my body. The days that I didn't feel good, I didn't push myself."
While Robinson continued with her interior design work, her friends focused on selling her inventory in her Happy Chair business. A custom-design furniture business that gives new life to worn and weathered pieces, Robinson now wants to create a Happy Chair that reflects her sentiments during her breast cancer struggle.
Thanks to Kelley Earnhardt Miller's efforts, Robinson has been able to continue her business and pay her mounting medical bills. Earnhardt Miller had her on her podcast shortly after the diagnosis and then quickly established an account for Robinson at GoFundMe, the No. 1 do-it-yourself fundraising Website. Last October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s foundation conducted a two-week eBay auction, with the proceeds going to Robinson.
"She's been a dear friend of mine over the last 15 years," said Earnhardt Miller, who once raced late models. "We got started when she worked with me on a home design project and we've been friends ever since. I feel blessed to have known her and to know her like I do. She has such a big heart that I just wanted to be there for her.
"Her business requires her to be hands on, and I knew that while she was doing chemo and trying to take care of herself, her income would take a hit. I also knew there were fans out there who would want to rally around her because our sport is just so tight-knit and close like that. We were trying to figure out something we could do right away to let people know right away, so we felt like [GoFundMe] was the best means we had. Sherry Pollex and I both reached out to her. I know she's real thankful that we were there during that time for her."
A painful year leads to growth
Robinson worked throughout her treatments. She underwent chemotherapy from March to July, surgery in mid-July to remove 18 lymph nodes and the lump in her breast, more chemotherapy until September and then 22 radiation treatments that began in November. Her chemo treatment was the worst, once sending her to the emergency room for the night. For a week she was extremely sick with vomiting, diarrhea and constipation. Her oncologist immediately changed her chemo regime because of her severe reaction to the inaugural dose. Still, she battled nausea every morning.
She now appears to be at the end of her aggressive treatments. Chemo, however, won't be out of her life entirely. Robinson now enters a phase known as maintenance chemotherapy, which is designed to keep the cancer from returning. For the next year, every three weeks, she will report for a 90-minute treatment.
Today, Tanner is completing his first year at UNC-Asheville, while Samantha is looking forward to high school graduation and heading for UNC-Wilmington in the fall.
Robinson recently relocated from Charlotte to Lake Norman's west side, renting a house Newman and his wife once called home. The location puts her closer to her design firm's clientele. Currently, she is designing everything for the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation's May 13 Catwalk for a Cause, which benefits pediatric cancer research and financially deserving families of children undergoing treatment at Charlotte's Levine Children's Hospital. Last year, Robinson appeared at the fundraiser bald. This year, she sports her pixie hair.
"I'm dying to put it in a ponytail. I can't wait," Robinson said with a laugh. "I'm even trying to put it in a clip on the top of my head."
The last year has been an experience, Robinson says, that's made her grow in many ways. Friends and family have been by her side, and lessons she learned during her long racing career have proved invaluable in her cancer battle.
"She's always been a fighter, being the only woman [driver] in NASCAR at one time, fighting her way through the ranks of all those men," Sue Clark said. "She wasn't going to let it get her. I think the biggest attribute to that was her children, knowing that she had two children and she wanted to be around to see them continue to grow up, get married and have families. She's just a strong person."