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Thriving Beyond Adversity: Beth Sands' inspirational path as a cancer survivor

You'll be inspired by the words of one of Statesboro's most remarkable "Helpers," Beth Sands. She is an encourager, water aerobics instructor, cancer warrior, and mom, who understands the importance of community and "finding your people" in the good times and bad.

In the heart of the Statesboro community, one name shines brightly as a beacon of resilience and inspiration: Beth Sands. Since graduating from Georgia Southern, Beth has immersed herself in the fabric of this town, making a profound impact that spans over two decades. Beth has dedicated herself to Splash in the Boro's water aerobics program, where she transitioned from participant to beloved instructor in as little as two years. However, Beth's story goes far beyond her involvement at the pool. Living with a rare, inoperable brain tumor, she has found strength and inspiration through her faith and relationships. In this interview, Beth shares her experiences of survival, the power of community support, and the unwavering love of family that has helped her to encourage her through it all.

GC: So now that we’re settled and have our coffee, let’s get started! I have some questions for us to use as a guideline, of course, if we start to get stuck, but I mainly just want to hear about your journey and story in your own words with the goal of then resharing that as authentically as possible with those in our community. I’m really looking forward to learning about the impact you’ve had on Statesboro, as told by you!

BS: [chuckles] Oh okay! I just live in my own little world, out at the pool. I don’t know if I’ve made waves like that but hey!

GC: Oh I don’t know, I’ve heard some pretty impressive things about your time at Splash in the Boro! How did your dedication to the pool begin? 

BS: The water park opened in 2004, and I immediately signed up for classes. I had always been active, both taking and teaching different fitness classes on land, namely kickboxing, and aerobics. 

And then when they began offering classes at Splash, I just thought to myself, ‘Hey, I love the water, I’ll just go and try it.’ 

And of course, I fell in love with it. I took the water aerobics class as a patron for a couple of years. We had rotating instructors because they would come from Southern, but I was always so consistent in attending that I became friends with the manager there at the time. 

Eventually, he asked me, ‘Hey, would you be interested in teaching?’ and I was like, ‘Sure I’ll try it!’  And I’ve been there ever since. I believe I started at the end of ‘06. 

GC: So, in a sense, you really have built a legacy there.

BS: Oh yeah, and the people there, they’ve made it so easy to stay and be involved over the years. It really is like a family. We’re in our own little bubble together, all of us, out there at the pool.

GC: Could you teach me a little more about what makes water aerobics different from a traditional aerobics class? What kind of classes are you teaching right now?

BS: Well, I’ve got several different classes, and I only teach in the early morning, but the main class, the original class actually, is AquaFit. That class is held in the therapy pool. So we’ve got two big pools out there, and the therapy pool is heated to about 89, 90 degrees year-round. In this class, you’ll get your heart rate up, and use dumbbells for resistance in the pool.

Then we designed a Deep Water class, too, which is held in the competition pool. So in that class, you wear a buoyancy belt so that you don’t ever touch the bottom. You might do a lot of similar exercises but without touching the bottom, it kind of changes how your body responds to the movement. So it’s a good core workout, lots of stretching, and then we’ll also use resistance bands for the upper body to target different joints and muscles. 

And then we have another class I teach for Arthritis Therapy. It’s designed, you know, with arthritis patients in mind. So there’s no resistance gear used, and we don’t run or jump. It’s a lot of balance and mainly stretching and stationary toning. 

Then we have a Circuit class, which is designed for those with more experience in exercise and fitness, and this one is also in the competition pool. It’s held on both water and land. So you might swim a length, get out, and I’ll have kettlebells, water bags, or some kind of core workout. Some kind of exercise on land, and then a timer will go off, and you’ll swim to the other end where a different exercise is set up, you might have to dump water buckets or something.

And so that one’s actually a quick 30-minute class, starts at 6 AM, and most people are coming and getting their workout in and going to work.

GC: So you were an alumna of Georgia Southern, weren’t you?

BS: Yep! I got a Bachelors's in therapeutic rec.

GC: Ah, so you’ve always kind of had a passion for this!

BS: Oh yeah. And I played softball for Georgia Southern, so I went there on scholarship. I was a catcher. So I played there and then went on to have an opportunity to coach at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina where I got my master's in counseling and development. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do, but you know, I wanted to help people and I loved to be active. Before I came here I worked in head injury, so the therapeutic side of that was post-accident, which is when someone’s trying to reenter society. There are a lot of hoops you have to jump through to get back to one’s independent living. So for example, if someone used to love golf before their injury, but now just can’t remember how to play, I would help them regain those skills, and help them connect those dots. After that, I worked with Special Olympics for a while, and now I teach water aerobics! 

GC: Knowing your passion for wellness and staying active and how deep that runs in your personality, how did it affect you when you received your diagnosis? 

BS: So, yeah, it was kind of a shock at first; the first thing they found was a tumor in my left thigh, the sarcoma tumor. So sarcoma can be a pretty nasty, aggressive kinda cancer. I was extremely fortunate in the end when I found out all of the details about it, cause looking back you know, I was still teaching, I was training for the Rock and Roll marathon, so I was getting a lot of running in, and, I can remember, I was a terrible stretcher, I still am, don’t stretch much, but I just happened to stretch and I was on my back, and I felt this little bubble.

I wasn’t sure if I had strained in, gotten some fluid, so I called John Hodges’ office, who’s retired now, and I told him, ‘I’m training for this marathon, think I may have some fluid, and I don’t wanna have to stop what I’m doing, can you just drain it,’ and he was like, ‘Sure, come in,’ but when I arrived, he didn’t think that it was fluid.

So he sent me to get an ultrasound where they saw it was a huge mass that had morphed and overtaken my thigh muscle; it had grown around and attached to everything, my muscle, nerves, and blood vessel. From there, he sent me to the Mayo Clinic. 

At Mayo, the lady, you know, sat me down and told me straight up, 'This is a sarcoma cell tumor,' and she drew this tree diagram and walked me through my different options.

So going into it, I was like, if I can’t use my leg, I don’t want it. I knew I could figure out how to live around it, but I didn’t want to just hold onto my leg if I couldn’t use it anymore. So, we had surgery, because it was a situation where you couldn’t puncture it, a biopsy wasn’t in the picture, it was too risky to touch it and spread, but they got it out. And as bad as it could have been, mine, for whatever reason, had borders. And even though it had attached to everything, it had not permeated through. So they were able to cauterize it. They took some of my muscle and left some of the tumor pieces where it had attached to my nerves and my blood vessel because it would’ve taken the use away from my leg. 

I was lucky too, because the doctor I was sent to actually had been an Olympic rower, so she really understood me and my mindset.

You know, I was 40, still teaching, and they were always so good about asking me,

'What do you want? What do you see yourself doing? What do you envision for your future?'

So she was very conscious in helping guide my recovery in a way that best set me up to heal and move forward. As a result of our conversations, we decided that the best course of action was to simply do periodic checkups and MRIs to monitor for any spreading.

And 10 years later, they were finally like, ‘Look if you have any issues, come back, and if not.’ 

So I have not been back, not about my leg at least.

GC: So you’ve had to see them recently for other circumstances?

BS: So 5 years ago, in 2017, I found out that I have a brain tumor. The brain tumor, thank goodness, is not the same as my leg. This kind is some rare, brain cranial, nerve 7 tumor. I knew something was going on with this one because I thought I had a sinus infection, with a little bit of fluid in my ear. So I went to Dr. Purvis, sweet, sweet man, and asked him to remove the fluid, I couldn’t hear out of that ear very well, and I’m in the water every day so it made sense. But I also had a lot of other random stuff going on that I didn’t really mention at first because I just thought it was all unrelated.

But you know, Dr. Purvis said, ‘Well, your ears look fine.’ and he just kept questioning me about what else was happening.

So I mentioned that I couldn’t feel my eyeball, like when I put in my contacts. Everything I ate or drank felt cold, but only on the one side, and the kicker was, do you know what Cerebral Palsy is? I would have these random episodes, during the night when I was asleep or during the day when I was laughing, the muscles would just freeze. And as soon as I mentioned that, I was sent to get MRIs. The next day they called me to tell me that they had found a mass on the back of my brain, and I was on my way back to Mayo.

So originally, I was scheduled for brain surgery, but they thought it was a different type of tumor. So if you can imagine, everything is just so tight back there. You can see it, the tumor, well on the imagining, but what’s weird about it is, on that 7th nerve, it makes it inoperable. If it had been on the 5th, 6th, or 8th, there’s a potential they would have gone in, but not with mine. So after some back and forth with my itinerary, they sat me down with the chief neurosurgeon, and he explained that multiple professionals all agreed it would be too dangerous to do surgery, and from there I was told that radiation was my only real option from my brain tumor, and I began that July 2017.

So it’s a growing tumor, and the goal of the radiation was to keep the center of that tumor dormant so that it would stop expanding. And so far, it’s working. It’s changed shapes but it hasn’t grown larger, and they were able to tell that the margins actually have gotten smaller, which they weren’t expecting. 

What I have, people live with and through so much worse, so I just remain thankful for everything. Things I can’t do anymore, I’m perfectly fine with. I’ve learned to live with it. My husband and I used to do triathlons together, but now, I can’t ride bikes because it’s a balancing issue. 

GC: I was curious, living with this and navigating your day-to-day life, how does this diagnosis and treatment journey impact you?

BS: Yeah, so it’s actually kinda weird, because it has to do with nerves, it’s only on the left side of my face. It’s tingly, I always experience weird sensations on my skin, things still feel cold on that side of my mouth in my gum it just feels weird. And then with my balance, like if I go up to a crosswalk, it looks more like a floating ladder, so where I used to just go out and run at any time, now I avoid running at times when I know there will be a lot of shadows because the high contrast, it just makes it look funny and in the beginning, I would just stumble. But now, I just have to tell myself that the way I’m perceiving this at this moment isn’t real. I’ve learned to pay less attention to what I see, and more attention to what I know to be true. And as much as that is, it still is doable. 

And I have a very supportive and loving family, extended family is huge, and then there’s everybody at the pool, we always celebrate everything. We don’t worry about the bad, you know if something isn’t the way we want it, we focus on what we got, not what we don’t have. We all cheer each other on every day, no matter how we show up to the pool. 

GC: So you really have found empowerment through your community.

BS: Without a question. For sure. That is an awesome community out there. I love, love everybody. I mean, you really cannot find a better group of people. I get up every morning and I go out to the pool and I know no matter what I’ll find support in those people.

GC: And that’s something I’ve really seen emphasized by others who have walked this path and faced similar experiences, other survivors I’ve spoken with have really contributed so much of their healing and recovery to the people in their inner circle. Community is important. How does one get through this kind of thing without support?

BS: Oh yeah, you just gotta find them. They’re out there, your people, your circle, your community.  We were talking about that today, funny enough, I was talking with a lady who had just made her way back to the pool, and she is just going through chemo and treatment for pancreatic cancer, and when she comes in, she just lights up the place. She was talking with me about how when she was in Ohio doing her treatments, there were just nice people and how when she felt weak, strangers just surrounded her and made her feel comforted and less alone. And so we were just talking about how there really are so many good people in the world, so much kindness, you just have to look for it. You’ll find it.

GC: So I know you mentioned you have a good relationship with your family, you’re married as well, tell me a little bit more about that part of your support system. I remember you said they played a large part in your personal recovery story.

BS: My husband’s name is Dub, and we have a son, Daniel who is getting married in November, and my daughter, Mikay just got married, so we’re having a great year. Yeah, we love it, all the energy and the fun times and the crazy times, so we all have been fortunate. Couldn’t ask for better partners for my children, it’s just been so good watching them grow up. And it never bothered me, them growing up, you know, everything they would accomplish, I’ve always wanted it all for my kids. I love watching them grow and seeing how they push themselves.

Pictured is the Sands family. Left to right is Daniel, Kayla (Daniel's fiancée), Beth, Dub, Mikay, and David (Mikay's husband),

GC: And I can definitely see that same mindset and energy within you, from what I’ve heard and what I’ve learned today, you absolutely are like, ‘Okay, what can I accomplish next?’

BS: Oh that’s right, I’ve always loved to challenge myself, and everyone at the pool keeps me on my toes too. You can’t get slack around there, they’ll call you out too. If you’re late to class, they’ll start talking, telling people to text so and so, ‘Did they tell you they won’t be coming?’ There’s accountability there; they want to see you be and do your best.

My husband though, he’s from around here, so the large family I married into is his. Everyone takes care of each other. So I’ll tell ya, when I went for my brain, we had raday-vacay, so we decided that when I was going to have radiation, I committed to doing it all in a week. And so everyone came and showed up that week in support. People would work from the rooms as needed, and we got these keeps printed out that said raday-vacay. I would get my treatments in the morning, and then we would hang out together at Mayo. And so after that, one of the cousins said that every year after this, we’ll make this a family vacation. So what started as brain tumor radiation has turned into when my family gets together every year, and when I said everybody, I mean it’s like 40 houses and we all hang out on the beach together. Each night, a different family will host and we’ll always have a big family dinner together. So yeah, that’s how my family rolls. I made it through 100% because of their love and support. They filled me with courage and helped me to stay strong through it all. I’ll never understand just how lucky I am to have been blessed with this family.

Beth Sands captioned this photo "Putting our spin on brain radiation... RADAY VACAY!"

GC: I think it’s beautiful that y’all were able to create something so meaningful and fun out of that!

BS: Yeah, especially for me. Because my family didn’t really do anything like that, like going on vacation every year. But Dub, his family this was something they grew up doing. So prioritizing each other and making that time to be together and travel together was something they were taught to value from a young age by their parents. 

And then, in 2005, his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, and she was the spark of the family. We don’t even know how she would do it. Every Sunday, she would have a lunch spread for the family, and so on Sunday everyone would just come on over, everyone was welcome, friends, and family, it didn’t matter, if they were with you, bring them. There were no strangers.

Well when she got sick, she passed away within the same year. So when she was gone, everything was in shambles. We didn’t know how to live with it or what to do. But we all came together and decided to start making these angels, and they were called Paul’s Angels, because her name was Paulette, so I really believe that everything I do, and everything our family has been able to do, was all because of her. She taught us to come together and support one another. So I really do believe that when my time came along, it wasn’t a woe-is-me kind of thing, I wanted to find a way to turn around and make it something good. Just like we did with the angels. We would make them every year and then donate the money back to help support those within the community to cover their own treatment expenses. Though, everything slowed down after COVID.

GC: So do you all still make the angels now?

BS: Sure do, as much as we can at least. I try to change the design every year. They’ve been made with wood and beads, and last year I tried my hand at felting, have you ever heard of that before? I found out quickly how sharp those needles are. I’ve done angels as gnomes before. So they’re really cute. People love them and look for them every year. So I still need to think of a design idea for this upcoming year. But yeah, we’re very proud of those because of what they represent for our family.

GC: Do you have any last words or ideas you want to share before we end our coffee date?

BS: Well we talked a lot about me, which I know I had cancer, and I have a brain tumor, but really, everyone has stuff, and I truly don’t believe that you can compare pain. That anything is at a higher ranking or whatever. All our paths are different. I had to go through this for a reason, and I’ve been able to deal with it because of the people I’ve surrounded myself with. And I’m a Christian, so I have my faith, and I believe in that wholeheartedly. So I really don’t spend time worrying about things because tomorrow has enough worries. I don’t waste my time with that.

But outside of that, I just want people to hear and truly understand how much my family means to me and how much my pool family means to me. The patrons, the staff. I truly cannot imagine waking up and going anywhere else and doing anything else except spending it with them.

GC: What does it mean for you to be able to go back into your community and inspire others in their own fitness and wellness journey?

BS: Oh it’s everything. And we inspire each other. We all push each other. We do life together, laugh and joke and face changes together. It’s an extremely social and supportive community out there. We get dinner together, meet and go to the movies, and bounce ideas off of each other. No matter what you dragged along with you to the pool, you’re surrounded by smiling faces that wanna see you succeed against all odds.

Pictured are Sands, bottom right, and sister-in-law, Leslie, bottom left. In the middle, cousins Barbara and Lisa. Top left, is Sands' niece Anna Kate, with Sands' sister-in-law Emily on the right. With this picture, Sands expresses, "No one fights alone in our fam."