Special Edition Spotlight: Earl Shellner, Patient Family Advisor

Earl Shellner

Some say adversity is life throwing you a curveball to make it better. For every defeat or challenge you face, there’s a seed of growth and improvement planted with it.

By his mid-30s, Earl Shellner’s life priorities were launching his own business, making money fast and partying with friends. This included traveling around the country frequently and missing important family events. Things quickly changed when adversity came ‘knocking on his door.’ It turns out, life had a different set of priorities for Earl. 

In 2013, Earl had a plane ticket bound to San Diego to spend the winter before returning to launch his business back in Maryland. Right before leaving for his trip, he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. The diagnosis meant 25 sessions of radiation, 12 sessions of chemotherapy and two months of oral chemotherapy at Anne Arundel Medical Center (AAMC).

His outlook?

“Cancer saved my life,” affirms Earl. “It completely changed me. One time, I found out my cousin was taking my mom to the hospital for heart issues while I was at Mardi Gras partying. Another time, I flew all the way to Houston to meet with a friend and didn’t even think of calling my grandparents who live there. When I found out about my cancer, I realized how really great my family is and that I wasn’t paying attention to them. I lived a totally different life but I like the person I became a lot more now.”

When Earl completed his treatment, he experienced “chemo brain,” a symptom cancer survivors use to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur after cancer treatment. He couldn’t remember how to spell his name, called people by the wrong name and would have the same conversations repeatedly without noticing.

One of the nurses informed him that AAMC had just started a program for cognitive behavioral therapy. “They thought they could maybe help me with my situation,” he says. “I started attending meetings for speech therapy and, after looking at the data, they said I was improving dramatically just from the therapy. I was told there were only four other patients doing this at the hospital and I thought to myself, ‘If it’s working for me so well, it must work well for others too.’”

Having experienced what so many had already lived through, he was adamant in using his lessons to help others. Today, working as a patient family advisor (PFA), Earl has a different perspective toward his priorities. 

“I made it my goal to use the experiences I had lived through to make everything better for our patients,” he says. “I remember one time I was sitting in the infusion center getting my fluids and a woman approached me after she read an article I wrote with information about the cognitive program at AAMC and how to find help. She said she needed to thank me because she had attended one of the behavioral therapy courses and it had helped her dramatically. Knowing that I’m helping others is what brings me the greatest joy.”

Earl has been a PFA at AAMC for four years. In April, he won the 2019 Beryl Institute’s Innovative Patient/Family Advisor Innovation Award for leading and inspiring an innovation that has improved the experiences of patients and their families.

PRO TIP: “Sit down to think about the pros and cons in your life and find out what’s important to you. Once I realized the partying and the money were all gone, I realized there is so much more out there. Plan for tomorrow, live for today and enjoy life.”

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