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‘She’s a fighter’: Cougar Kendo founder continues teaching amid breast cancer battle

Shamina Chang, who founded Cougar Kendo in 2008, "didn’t know if I was going to die soon or if I was going to be able to survive" after her diagnosis with the disease in July. | Andy Yanez/The Cougar

Shamina Chang, who founded Cougar Kendo in 2008, said, “we didn’t know if I was going to die soon or if I was going to be able to survive” after her diagnosis with cancer in July. | Andy Yanez/The Cougar

Inside of the University’s Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, a door is propped open by a kendo stick. A few moments later, 30-year-old Shamina Chang walks through the threshold and into her safe haven.

The first thing she does is take a bow as a show of respect for the dojo. A tradition for all members of Cougar Kendo. She then prepares to instruct the practice.

Chang, who graduated from UH with a double major in psychology and philosophy with summa cum laude honors, founded Cougar Kendo back in Fall 2008.

Chang is also carrying one more item to practice. She is battling an aggressive form of stage II breast cancer.


“We didn’t know if I was going to die soon or if I was going to be able to survive,” Chang said.

Her diagnosis came in July after undergoing a slew of tests over three months.

In total, she will have to endure six chemotherapy treatments with the goal that the tumor will shrink to a size where it can be surgically removed.

Chang has already undergone four of the six chemotherapy sessions.

“For each round, I have to deal with some fatigue, nausea and diarrhea,” Chang said. “I also lose 5 pounds each time and have to spend a lot of time trying to get it back before the next round.”

Each round of chemotherapy also comes with unique side effects.

“For the first round, I also had things like some bone pain, I had a lot of mouth sores,” Chang said. “For this past one, my nose and gums (were) bleeding, and I (had) hot flashes every night, which is making it difficult to sleep.”

Despite the toll chemotherapy is taking on Chang’s body, she has seen progress.

“The tumor was originally quite large, like 3-by-3 centimeters,” Chang said. “It is now too small to physically detect.”

Chang is still not in the clear yet, however. She will still have to take medication treatments for an additional year once her treatment is done if all signs of her cancer are gone.

If not, chemotherapy must continue.

In addition, Chang and her husband, Cougar Kendo head coach Mark Kerstein, do not have health insurance to alleviate treatment costs. Her treatments were estimated to cost $95,000.

“I did not have insurance in the past because I needed to pay for other things like bills and student loans,” Chang said. “I haven’t managed to pay my bills, so when I go to the hospital, I have to pay for some things upfront, and I get billed the rest.”

Unexpected help

To help pay her medical expenses, former members of Cougar Kendo set up a GoFundMe page for Chang that has already raised over $21,000 of the $200,000 goal.

Many have thanked Chang for her impact by donating to the fundraiser, and she has been overwhelmed by the support.

“I didn’t expect it at all,” Chang said. “I’ve been blown away. There have been people who have contacted me who might have been a part of Kendo for one practice or who I haven’t seen in years donating.”

Despite her illness, Chang refuses to stop doing what she loves — teaching.

“When you have cancer, some people hide that they have it,” Chang said, “but that was impossible for me. These people are a part of my life.”

Chang’s response to her adversity has left those around her awestruck.

“I found out she had cancer at the start of the semester, and it threw me off,” said Cougar Kendo vice president Tevin McNeil. “I didn’t think I would see her a lot anymore, but it was only for her first treatment. After that, she was here for every practice, and she hasn’t just been standing around either.”

Inspiring her pupils

Chang’s impact on others goes beyond leading Cougar Kendo in practices. Chang has motivated the club’s members in countless ways.

“Shamina never stopped believing that I would become someone,” said Cougar Kendo instructor Rose Nguyen. “She continuously supported me in every decision I made, counseled me with indecisive decisions and inspired me to never give up. She told me over and over again to push through the pain and suffering.”

Nguyen’s experiences with Chang are not exclusive.

“Shamina really has a way of bringing out your inner you,” McNeil said. “My first semester, I was really shy, really nervous. When I was in armor, Shamina would tell me to give it my all. She told me to never back up. She drilled that into my personality.”

Despite the outpouring of love and appreciation,  however, Chang remains humble.

“I had no idea that I’ve impacted so many people, honestly,” she said. “I’m devoted to helping people. I’m always there for them, but they are always there for me. That’s the strength of doing something like kendo.”

‘She is a fighter’

Actions speak louder than words, and what Chang has done every day continues to amaze the members of Cougar Kendo, who watch as she leads by example.

“She continues to strive to be the best version of herself,” Nguyen said. “She pushes the people she cares for to do the same thing. People have expressed their gratitude regarding Kendo and Shamina’s impact on their lives.”

Many involved with Cougar Kendo look at how Chang has handled her trials and tribulations and leave with motivation.

“She inspired me to see my obstacles as stepping stones to becoming a better person instead of weights around my ankles,” Nguyen said. “Even with cancer, she continues to push herself. She does not see cancer as a weight but as a trial, which she will surmount.

“She is a fighter, and she taught me how to be one, too.”

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