Melbourne based high flyer Shelli Whitehurst was diagnosed with Stage 4, metastatic breast cancer. The vivacious entrepreneur was given just 12 months to live. Only two weeks after her diagnosis, she established a business called Kit For Cancer, which is now helping hundreds of other patients and their families – not only in Australia, but around the world. She knew this business will outlive her, but was determined to leave an enduring legacy that helps cancer patients “in the good times and the bad” providing practical, heartfelt care. This is her story.
Shelli Whitehurst was at the pinnacle of her career, enjoying the success of the marketing business she founded when her life changed in an instant.
It was May 2014. Her strategic digital marketing company ‘Code Name Max’ was generating millions of dollars, she was working 15 hours a day, doing business in New York and loving every second.
She had experienced some pain – it was dismissed for months as an infection – then she visited an ophthalmologist with an eye so sore it was difficult to open.
Further investigation revealed tumours behind her eye and they were not primary cancers.
“My diagnosis was very rapid and very rare,” Shelli reflects.
“I was in New York, doing business, at the top of my game. I was a business owner in my mid-thirties, an entrepreneur, doing the whole thing and literally within seconds, my world just stopped.
Through a friend of a friend, Shelli was able to book into a breast surgeon a little earlier than expected. A day of extensive medical tests followed and she soon received terrible news: the cancer was in both breasts and her bones. She had rib and shoulder fractures. Her breast tumours were massive.
“I was full of cancer – when they scanned me I lit up like a Christmas tree,” Shelli says.
“You go from being a person to a patient. I had never been sick in my life.”
Because the cancer had spread, it was decided there was probably little benefit to a double mastectomy.
“So we decided not to do surgery, but planned to monitor everything very closely and do surgery when required.”
Shelli was put on to a new drug that was not yet PBS listed. It meant she had to come up with tens of thousands of dollars within days. She has since had seven lines of therapy, including immunotherapy.
Unfortunately, this treatment did not work for her and she has begun other therapy regimens as soon as the previous falters.
Now, Shelli’s cancer has spread to her liver. “We work with me on what we call ‘spot fire treatment’,” she says.
“There is no drug that will fix me because my cancer is so weird and rare. I am 18 months past my expiry date. Now, we are on a different system of drugs which attack the cancer in a different way - which is good - and we have had 5 months of stability.”
These days, Shelli remains a vital part of the business she founded, but concedes she works nowhere near the number of hours she once did.
She has moved home with her Mum and Dad and relishes spending time with her niece Lyla and nephew, Hudson.
“I have an incredible family and I love being around them. I try to be positive. It takes just as much energy being sad as being happy.”
The business she began two weeks post diagnosis – Kit for Cancer - is going strong. The company has now sold more than 450 kits around the world, including in Zimbabwe and Brazil, and can be ordered online.
The kits come in a vintage carry case, and every item inside is personally selected for its usefulness and benefit to cancer patients. There are things like lip balms, fruit tingles, a coffee cup - even earphones.
Shelli’s kits sell for $150 and she tries to keep costs down. The business keeps her mind off cancer. “The best time of the morning is when I wake up and I am still breathing.”
Kit for Cancer can be ordered online at: www.kitforcancer.com
Shelli shared her story in September 2016 and passed away in July 2017 after a long and courageous battle. A keynote speaker at the 2015 Tour de Cure charity ball, she said: “I need hugs, I need my hand held, I need to be allowed to feel vulnerable… all I ask is that you don’t forget me.”