Shandy Strand

Shandy Strand, 19, passed away from liver cancer May 6. (Courtesy photo)

Shandy Strand had true grit — something that not many other people can say. It was never more evident during an unimaginable bout with a disease that usually ails people decades older than her, but that was Shandy. She didn’t back down from anything. The 19-year-old Telluride Mountain School alum passed away peacefully May 6 after a year-plus battle with liver cancer, which required a transplant in July.

Her parents, Scott and Danita, talked with the Daily Planet Tuesday morning in remembering their daughter who they say loved music, traveling and helping others. They graciously shared stories and memories, as they’ve been doing with friends and family over the past week.

“A lot of them commented on how she was this light,” her mother said. “She just didn’t let the circumstances control her outlook. She still shone lightly.

Her father added, “It was grit.”

The Strands were visiting family in Minnesota during the 2018 winter break, when Shandy experienced unbearable pains in her right side. The family went to the hospital Christmas Day, thinking Shandy may have appendicitis.

“In a matter of 24 hours we found out it was cancer,” Danita Strand said.  Shandy had hepatocellular carcinoma, which is the most common type of primary liver cancer, though it typically affects men over 60, or people with cirrhosis or hepatitis, neither of which Shandy suffered. A blood test that measures alpha-fetoprotein levels, which indicates liver tumors and cancer, revealed an alarming number.

“Her number was 1.2 million (ng/mL),” her mother explained. “Typically, they consider anything over 400 or 500 as a concern.”

Six rounds of chemotherapy at Minnesota’s Children’s Hospital ensued. Shandy, who was looking forward to graduation that summer, wanted to have her senior pictures taken first, before the treatments claimed her beautiful blonde hair. She even had some taken at the ranch of her mother’s youth. One picture in particular shows Shandy, wearing Carhart overalls, standing with her arm draped over a fence. In the background, a piece of equipment proudly displays the slogan, “Pride of the Ranch.”

“She thought that would be a perfect picture,” her mother said, stifling the sting of tears. 

That’s what Andy Krueger of the mountain school liked to call her. The two friends had a special bond outside of school, as Shandy helped Krueger with last winter’s ice sculpture festival and worked on Scott’s boss’s ranch with his boys many times.

“Years ago, I would come home and tell my wife, ‘I had a great day, I saw Shandy today,’” he said. “That’s the special world I get to live in, a world where Shandy, the Pride of the Ranch, is my friend forever.”

After completing chemotherapy a month before graduation, Shandy was able to accept her diploma with her class. She received the Telluride Mountain School’s Upper School Founders Award and gave an emotional commencement speech. Watching it now is heartbreaking yet hopeful, as she handled it with class, grace and, yes, grit.

“My world came to a stop Christmas morning. It was there that I found out that I had liver cancer,” she said. “The normal reaction to being told that you have cancer is to freak out, but I wasn’t so much scared as I was shocked. I had plans, and this was not one of them.”

She went on to thank her classmates, family, school, doctors and community, and reminisced about the school trips that she enjoyed so much. She also mentioned the “fifth core value.”

“I started my collection of grit in fourth grade,” she said of a backcountry trip.

She kept collecting it over the years, and it showed the last 18 months. After receiving a living donor liver transplant from her mother at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, July 29, a follow-up doctor’s appointment in mid-March found that the cancer had returned; this time in the new liver and a lymph node connected to the new organ. The diagnosis was dire, but it didn't deter the bright-eyed teenager who was planning to attend Westminster College in Salt Lake City to major in outdoor education.

“She never let it get her down, and she never stopped fighting,” her father said. “Danita and her had a conversation after the checkup that showed the cancer was growing more rapidly than anticipated, and they talked about it. Shandy said, ‘No, I want to keep fighting. I don’t want to roll over.’ Even though the odds were stacked completely against her.”

Her mother added, “The doctors knew what was likely to happen.”

Shandy was living in Durango most recently where she underwent treatments. Last week, her dad drove her up for a chiropractor’s appointment in Telluride, something that gave her great relief from the now constant pains. The family spent time together, including getting outside for a walk. Then on the way back to Durango while surrounded by her pillows, Shandy ran out of grit and passed.

“She was just looking out the window, seeing the beautiful mountains, listening to her music and going for a drive. She just closed her eyes, and that was it,” her father said.

Grit must run in the Strand family. Her parents, who are making plans for services in Minnesota and Telluride over the next couple months, didn’t hesitate when asked what their daughter taught them during her time here.

“Be strong, and never give up hope. … You can only control a little bit of your life. Take control of it, and do what you want,” her father said.

Her mother added, “Enjoy the moment. Don’t worry about tomorrow because today is what we have to enjoy.”