JACKSON, Tenn. – Oct. 24, 2011 – Kelly Elliot remembers when she got the news in 2009.
She had just picked up her daughter from school when she received a call from the office where she had gone in for a biopsy after her baseline mammogram “showed something a little bit unusual.”
She pulled into a parking lot and stepped out of the vehicle into the January air so her children in the backseat would not have to hear the conversation.
The surgeon was on the other line.
“He said, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news,’” Elliot said. “It was a cancerous tumor, but the surgeon described it as the ‘invasive garden variety’ — the type about which the most is known.”
Elliot, now the Union University volleyball coach, said everything seemed to stand still around her.
“You start thinking about your family,” she said.
She waited until after telling her husband to share the news with their children, who were 7 and 11. Even at their age they had already known close relatives who had battled cancer.
“We felt like being as honest as possible with them was best,” Elliot said. “That would take some of the fear away for them. Knowledge is power.”
Battling the cancer became a family project. Elliot said her husband carried a lot of the load, willingly taking up jobs around the house and encouraging the children to have a spirit of giving Mom a hand. Extended family also came to stay each weekend, she said.
Elliot said her church and the Union community also supported her throughout her treatment.
Fellow professors picked up some of her classes, though she chose to continue teaching a light load.
“(My colleagues’) support was amazing,” Elliot said. “The students were also very understanding. God really used (the ability to work) to help me get through treatment.”
Healthy habits were another crucial aspect of Elliot’s fight against cancer, she said. Throughout her treatments, she ran and lifted weights regularly and chose to eat nutritious foods.
She was running when she received a phone call from Vanderbilt Medical Center a few weeks after the call from the surgeon. When the cancer was discovered, she had quickly begun chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before undergoing surgery to remove it. She had been waiting, however, to determine if the cancer had spread. The call confirmed the cancer was contained.
Because of her age, Elliot thought she likely had the breast cancer gene. Her genetic testing, however, returned negative. After receiving the positive news, she underwent another two weeks of chemotherapy, using an aggressive drug she called the “red devil.”
“Those were the toughest months of chemo,” she said.
Three weeks into chemotherapy she shaved her head and began to wear hats. Elliot said since she chose to be in control of her hair loss, it was not as traumatic as she thought it might be.
After the chemotherapy had shrunk her tumor significantly, Elliot decided on a lumpectomy sentinel node biopsy, a relatively new procedure which allows the removal of only a few lymph nodes, instead of a traditional lumpectomy or a mastectomy.
After the surgery, she began radiation every two weeks. Elliot said she quickly learned to adjust to a new life rhythm: take the radiation drug, feel exhausted for three days, then feel relatively normal.
She said that besides a loss of appetite, she did not experience many side effects from the radiation. Continued exercise and healthy eating likely played a part in how well her body responded to the treatment, she said. The radiation drug affected her balance and gave her joint pain, so for some time she had to limit her exercise.
At the end of the 2009 fall semester, Elliot was asked to step in as an interim head volleyball coach for Union. She had been an assistant coach at another school and was currently leading a Bible study for some of the volleyball players.
Elliot said yes, because “at that point, I felt so good compared to what I had been through.”
Nearly three years after she was diagnosed, Elliot is still coaching the team and teaching classes. She remains cancer free.
While she said her cancer experience continues to define her, it is not a part of everyday life anymore.
Elliot is willing to talk about her ordeal. In fact, she believes it is best for her if she does.
“If we are not vulnerable about difficult experiences in our lives, then God cannot redeem them,” Elliot said. “(Breast cancer) is a terrible thing to go through and it is not fun to have the knowledge that it can come back. I want God to be able to use that as much as possible.”
By Samantha Adams (’13)