Shari Elliot and her husband Rob are self-described Google researchers. The couple living in Bradenton, Fla. browses message boards and networks with cancer patients. Both veterans of the medical industry, they are not afraid to look up scientific journals and read detailed reports about developments in cancer treatment.
This information is important for Shari to accomplish her personal goal: to live for 10 years after her diagnosis.
“By then there is going to be a cure,” she said. “It’s still my goal, and I’m holding on to it.”
This is Shari’s third bout with breast cancer. Her first diagnosis was in 1997. She underwent a partial mastectomy and entered remission for the stage I diagnosis. Nevertheless, Shari found it important to tell her future husband about her history with the illness when she started dating Rob.
“It certainly didn’t scare me away,” Rob said.
Shari had her first son, Jordan, in 2001, and gave birth to her second son, Justin, in 2003. She did not know she had growing tumors during her pregnancy until doctors diagnosed Shari again six weeks after Justin was born. This time, the breast cancer was categorized as stage II. The more serious cancer required a double mastectomy, surgical removal of both breasts, but Shari entered remission for a second time without her two sons ever understanding she was sick, Shari said.
Six years later, Shari received an ordinarily scheduled PET scan, but the test revealed a new tumor in her lymph node. For the third time, doctors diagnosed Shari with breast cancer. This time, it was stage IV.
“I’m a stubborn person, in a good way, and a fighter,” Shari said. “My cancer decided to be stubborn.”
Tumors now have metastasized through Shari’s lymph nodes, spine, shoulders, hips, liver and one lung. She visits a cancer specialist in Sarasota, Fla. about three times a week for chemotherapy and receives PET scans every three months. Her diagnosis is grim, but Shari is determined to reach her decade goal.
“Although the other times were stage I and stage II and this is stage IV, I went into remission those times and I have to do it again,” she said. “I just have to get there.”
A friend recommended the Elliots investigate Inheritance of Hope and its Legacy Retreats, and Shari, Rob and their two sons flew to New York
City before Thanksgiving last year. Volunteers assisted from the moment the Elliots stepped off the airplane, Shari said. They visited the Hard Rock Café, toured Top of the Rock, took a sightseeing cruise, and watched the Radio City Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes.
“I grew up in New York and New Jersey my whole life, and we did things I’d never done before,” Shari said.
The Elliots also participated in group sessions and met other families in similar situations at the Legacy Retreat. Justin and Jordan, now 9 and 8 years old, took part in children’s’ activities and made friends their age, while Shari and Rob shared their stories in groups for parents.
“It’s just so therapeutic and really beneficial to talk openly and have the other person understand where you’re coming from,” Rob said.
Shari said the Inheritance of Hope Legacy Retreat inspired her to seek a specialized stage IV support group in her hometown. Although there are options for cancer patients, Shari said advanced patients have different needs.
“When I was at Inheritance of Hope, we were all stage IV, and we had so many different issues,” she said. “We’re talking about living life and surviving.”
Shari said her husband and sons play the biggest role in her survival, more than any support group or scientific journal. She tells a story of how Rob motivated her to keep fighting amidst a challenging chemotherapy program following her 2003 diagnosis. One day, while the family was in the kitchen, Shari told Rob she did not have the strength to continue the treatment, which was making her ill. Rob pointed Shari to Jordan and Justin, who were toddlers sitting in high chairs at the time.
“He turned me around and said, ‘You tell them that you can’t go on,’” Shari said. “That was life-changing for me because it wasn’t about me, it was about the whole family.”
Shari is proud to be 50 years old and, with the help of her family, plans to see plenty more birthdays.
“Even though she’s stage IV at this point, my money’s still on her,” Rob said.