By KATIE EUBANKS
Roosevelt and Shay Greenwood don’t do anything halfway. If they experience a storm (literal or otherwise), it’s a roof-ripping monster. If they experience a victory, it’s against insurmountable odds.
“We do everything big,” Shay says.
Twenty years ago, Shay woke up to the sounds of a tornado. She and Roosevelt had four kids at the time — all 5 years old and under.
“Roosevelt had already cleaned out the closet. The light fixtures, I remember the noise,” she says, making an eerie whooshing sound — two short bursts followed by one long one. “It was the electricity being sucked out of the house.”
Shay and Roosevelt grabbed the kids and hunkered down in the closet.
“You could hear the click (of) debris hitting the windows. And then the windows being blown out.”
“And the roof being taken off,” Roosevelt says. But the hallway and closet were still intact.
“He started screaming out to God to save us,” Shay says. “And I’m patting (our son) Jacob, thinking, ‘What is happening?’ and feeling around for the kids because they were quiet.”
When Roosevelt heard the tornado move away from the house, he started thanking God aloud. “And I’m like, ‘What are you thanking God for?’ because I couldn’t hear it,” Shay recalls.
When they emerged from the closet, the house was destroyed, the roof over the living room was gone, and their youngest child’s crib was filled with bricks and wood.
Years later in 2016, when Roosevelt was diagnosed with cancer, he and his family remembered the tornado.
“(We knew) God was still going to be faithful, even in this,” Shay says.
Still, “All of us were thinking, ‘Really?’”
‘I’m not moving to Mississippi’
Roosevelt grew up a pastor’s kid in Mississippi, while Shay was raised in Nebraska and, after seeing an aunt’s spiritual transformation, gave her heart to Jesus at age 23. Gradually, she learned how to live that out.
“Not a lot changed at first. That’s what I tell people when they want to judge someone (who might be new to the faith),” she says.
“People would bring things to me — ‘You know, you shouldn’t be doing this’ — and I wasn’t offended. I would figure out how to get out of (whatever behavior it was).”
Two years later, she was living in Atlanta and working for Gallup when she went on a recruitment trip to a college conference in Washington, D.C.
She noticed an attractive man at the Atlanta airport. Apparently he noticed her too. “You know how you can feel somebody staring at you … ” she recalls. They wound up on the same flight. In D.C., they saw each other again at baggage claim. Roosevelt approached and “made small talk,” he says, and they learned they were attending the same conference and even staying at the same hotel. He was recruiting for Jackson State University.
“My boss normally went on this trip, but he couldn’t go and sent me,” Roosevelt says.
He and Shay had breakfast together the next morning, went on a date the night after that, and were engaged three months later.
“I knew (she was the one) before three months,” Roosevelt says. “We were together for five days, and I came home and told my dad, ‘I met my wife.’ He smiled and said, ‘Oh yeah?’”
Over that first breakfast, Shay said, “I’m not moving to Mississippi.” Famous last words.
“I just let that (remark) fly over my head,” Roosevelt says.
“You have to go with where God calls you,” Shay says. Even if you have no idea what’s coming.
‘Nothing was touching the pain’
Early in their marriage, Shay traveled a lot for work. Roosevelt earned his master’s degree at Jackson State and started working in administration at the Canton school district.
After they started having kids, God called Shay to be a stay-home mom — while she was pursuing her master’s to be a licensed counselor.
“I feel like God was telling me I’d be able to do (counseling of some kind) without the degree.”
She started working from home for Premier Designs, the Christian jewelry company, and did jewelry shows in women’s homes.
In 2009, not even a decade after the tornado, the Greenwoods lost another house, this one because Roosevelt was let go from his job after budget cuts at the school district. The family moved into a rental.
And the hits kept coming: In September 2016, Roosevelt was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer, after experiencing what appeared to be a weightlifting injury.
He and Shay were at the gym, and he was doing leg extensions.
“Right leg, no problem, 10 reps. Left leg, same weight, and I couldn’t move it. But I forced it up, 10 reps,” he says. “I had a strange sensation from my lower back all the way down my leg to my toes.”
The pain lasted for weeks. He went to the chiropractor. He took hot showers. He slept on the floor. He took ibuprofen.
“Nothing was touching the pain,” he says.
Finally, when he couldn’t get a timely MRI scheduled elsewhere, he went to the hospital. The MRI there detected cancer lesions in his back.
“His PSA level was 1,490. That’s prostate specific antigen,” Shay says. “Normal is 0 to 4. Above that, you probably have cancer.” In addition, “Men become paralyzed (with prostate cancer, and I later learned) that process was happening. He could barely get on his toes. Atrophy was happening.”
Roosevelt underwent a bone biopsy and prostate biopsy, started chemotherapy, and immediately scheduled radiation appointments.
The oncologist, Dr. Guangzhi Qu, estimated Roosevelt had 18 to 24 months to live.* Normally, Dr. Qu was pretty straightforward with patients. “(He’d) tell you how much time you had,” Roosevelt says.
In this case, the doctor kept Roosevelt’s prognosis to himself. The Greenwoods didn’t know why he wouldn’t give them a timeline — but now they think it was God. “Our daughter had the opportunity to move to Houston (Texas). She would not have moved (if she had known),” Shay says.
While undergoing radiation treatments, Roosevelt took two morphine pills a day, Percocet for breakthrough pain, and Valium at night. Looking back on it, “that makes me teary,” Shay says. She hadn’t realized how much pain he’d endured before being diagnosed.
As Roosevelt’s cancer journey continued, “I didn’t read up on it because she was reading it all,” he recalls.
“I wanted to know so I could watch him and see if there was a symptom we needed to look at,” she says. “If this treatment stops working, we’d go to the next one.”
Roosevelt did five rounds of chemo and 25 rounds of radiation. He was scheduled for a sixth round of chemo but did not receive it because he got strep throat.
However, “my body started to heal,” he says. He was on his way to a remarkable recovery.
*Roosevelt has outlived his prognosis by more than three years.
‘Have you considered My servant Roosevelt?’
Roosevelt’s survival has not come easy.
“He would always say, ‘No matter what, I win,’” Shay recalls. He’d either live to enjoy his family, or start enjoying eternity with Jesus a little early.
In fact, “There were times when I just wanted to die,” he says. He wondered why God was allowing him to go through this.
Shay’s response: “Because God is saying, ‘Have you considered My servant Roosevelt?’” That’s what He said of Job, who honored God despite losing everything.
“John Piper wrote something called ‘Don’t Waste Your Cancer,’” Shay says. “In other words, use it for God’s glory. We were determined to do that.”
Shay has a friend whose husband, a doctor, prepared her to support Shay when Roosevelt passed. But two years after his diagnosis, Dr. Qu pronounced a miracle. Roosevelt not only had lived, he was faring far better than expected.
“We would see people, and it was almost comical. They’d be so excited to see him (alive),” Shay says. “We saw a nurse early on, and then we saw her later, and she was bawling. She said, ‘It’s not normal for you to look and feel this good.’ We were fighting through it (still), but seeing people’s emotion told us it was a miracle.”
Roosevelt explains what happened to his cancer: “Basically, it’ll always be in my body, but it’s asleep. Like the queen in an anthill,” he says.
“The worker ants have been killed, but the queen ant has been put to sleep,” Shay adds.
Rob Futral, the Greenwoods’ former pastor at Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison, heard that analogy and said, “We know the King of Kings can kill that queen ant.”
Currently, “On a daily basis, (Roosevelt) doesn’t feel 100 percent,” Shay says.
He takes multiple shots and pills, including a monthly bone shot — bone breaks are another common side effect of prostate cancer — and a hormone-resistant chemo pill that lowers testosterone.
“A lot of times as men, we chase the women,” Roosevelt says. “(Shay) has to chase me now. So that’s different.”
Going out in the sun is also different. “We have to ask, how hot is it going to be, and how long am I going to be out there?” Shay says.
Sleep apnea, heart palpitations, dehydration and fatigue are also issues — and Roosevelt has developed diabetes due to taking the steroid prednisone with the chemo treatment Zytiga. Chronic use of steroids can lead to this.
Naturally, “we’ve hid out more than most during the pandemic,” Shay says.
But the bottom line? Roosevelt is alive. He can walk a mile or two. (“I can run if I want to,” he says with a laugh.)
He can’t work, but he can play the organ, which he keeps in a spare bedroom. He’s been playing since he was 15, currently plays for two different churches on Sundays, and has only missed one Sunday in five years due to illness.
“It gives him something to focus on other than himself,” Shay says.
He’s not taking any pain medication. And that pesky PSA number went from nearly 1,500 to undetectable, which is “not the norm,” she says.
“I’m still in all the Facebook support groups for this. … Men who were diagnosed after Roosevelt have died.”
When Roosevelt was first diagnosed, one of the kids posted on social media and included the hashtag #GreenwoodStrong. This family had lost two homes and were about to endure yet another trial, but they were determined to get through it together.
“From there, we started being vocal,” Shay says. Each time they posted, they’d include that hashtag.
In December 2019, Roosevelt and Shay published many of the #GreenwoodStrong posts as a book, “If Love Could Heal: Our Family’s Story of Love and Survival Through Stage 4 Cancer.”
One person who found encouragement through the book was a man named Glen Petty who lived in Louisiana and had the same diagnosis as Roosevelt. The two men would talk on the phone and pray together, and Roosevelt calls him “a good friend.” But they never met in person.
That long-distance friendship blossomed at a time when the nation felt more divided than ever.
“All the racial (unrest) had started after George Floyd’s murder (in 2020),” Shay says. “Glen was an older white man from the country in Louisiana. I looked him up (on social media). They couldn’t be more opposite.
“To watch them talk on the phone and listen to them pray together, if the world knew and saw and experienced what these two guys were doing for each other … Race doesn’t matter, politics doesn’t matter. It’s just one human being to another.”
Glen and his wife, Jane, were going to come visit for a couples’ date during the pandemic: “Glen wanted to take us to dinner and a Zach Williams concert in Madison, and pay for a hotel night for us — but it got (postponed) because of COVID,” Shay says.
“He’s gone on to be with the Lord now,” Roosevelt says.
Glen is a good reminder for the Greenwoods that their story ultimately is not about them. That’s what their writing coach told them when they were preparing the book.
“Every time somebody says they bought (the book), I want to go down the list and say, ‘It’s not very well written, it’s just taken from Facebook posts … ’ but God said no, don’t do that,” Shay says. The book didn’t have to be a literary masterpiece — it only had to help people.
While Roosevelt developed a friendship in 2020 thanks to their book, Shay embarked on a new career venture. She’d been with Premier Designs for 20 years and was a senior leader, but the company was not doing well in the pandemic. (Premier closed in December 2020.)
A Premier colleague sent Shay a short video promoting a new athleisure clothing company called Savvi.
“She was actually scared to send it to me, because she knew that I didn’t want to have anything to do with building a team ever again,” Shay recalls. But then she pressed play.
“It was as if I wrote the video. It was using language like, ‘We want to help women look and feel their best; we want to help them style a life of their own design.’ I was saying these things all the time.”
Shay joined Savvi in May 2020, and the clothing line officially launched in September 2021. She’s now one of the company’s top leaders, with a team of approximately 185 people around the country, and maintains a social media presence full of fashion tips, fun, and encouragement. (Look for her first “Faith, Fashion and Fitness” column in our next issue!)
“All I get to do is do what I do best — which is love women (and) make a difference in their lives,” she says.
‘Why are we so amazed?’
When asked what God has taught them through their journey, Roosevelt says:
“I often say (God has) taught me that life doesn’t happen like you expect it to. Usually at this time (of life), you are retired or close to it, and preparing to enjoy your children and their children. Those things can still happen, but not the way you expect. And be grateful for everything.”
Shay has a hard time picking just one lesson learned.
For instance: “When you accept Jesus as your Savior, your life belongs to Him. But the world says you can create your own reality.”
But what she lands on is God’s love for His children.
“I don’t think I really understood the overwhelming love of God until we went through (cancer),” she says.
“And it’s not about being good or bad,” Roosevelt adds. God’s love is based on His character, not ours.
“We stand in amazement over us asking God to (heal Roosevelt) and then He does it. Why are we so amazed?” Shay says.
“God is faithful regardless of our circumstances, and He’s faithful when we’re not.”