Cancer survivor devotes her life to curing others

Ariel Shifter was named Woman of the Year by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Gateway Chapter.  Photo: Bill Motchan

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Light

When a cancer patient completes treatment and identifies as a survivor, the last thing that person wants to see is a technician in a white lab coat. Ariel Shifter is a survivor of Stage II Hodgkin lymphoma, but she dons that very outfit every day at work.

Shifter, 24, works at the Siteman Cancer Center, the same facility where she underwent treatment. She is a clinical research coordinator working on new cancer treatments that may help people just like her after clinical trials and FDA approval.

Her work is rewarding and particularly meaningful. It also is fitting for Shifter, who was recently named Woman of the Year by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Gateway Chapter.

Shifter’s college life at the University of Missouri-Columbia took an alarming turn in 2014 after she finished her junior year studying biology and psychology. On her 21st birthday, she was diagnosed with cancer.

“I came back to St. Louis every two weeks for treatments throughout the summer,” she said. “I had research studies to complete but obviously had to be treated as well.”

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She got to know the stretch of Interstate 70 between Columbia and Creve Coeur pretty well. During one of those trips, Shifter connected with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The organization offers resources and a reassuring voice during a tough time. Shifter decided she wanted to help the society.

“My mom and I decided to put together a team to run the St. Louis Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon and raise money for the LLS,” she said. “We didn’t really realize how big it would be, but we had about 30 people on our team and ended up raising about $37,000. It just gave me something to put my energy into and keep busy.”

Shifter is a researcher, not a fundraiser, and she was never crazy about asking people for donations, but this was personal.

“If you’re passionate enough about something and you care about it, it’s not hard to ask,” she said. “It’s not for me or my benefit, it’s so other people don’t have to go through what I did.”

Shifter had such a good experience raising money for cancer research in the half marathon that she decided to set her sights higher. That’s what led to the LLS Woman of the Year.

“If you raise $50,000, you get to designate it to a research grant of your choosing, and that was my goal,” she said. “I ended up surpassing it significantly, but I was not expecting what came of it.”

After Shifter raised a whopping $74,000 for the LLS, she was recognized May 5 at the Man & Woman of the Year Gala at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. Her role has included advocacy and awareness, explained Debbie Kersting, the Gateway Chapter’s executive director.

“Ariel’s leadership is twofold,” Kersting said. “One is to create awareness of the society and our resources available here for the community. She was also able to name a research grant for other cancer patients in this area, so it was wonderful that she took such an ambitious role in running for LLS Woman of the Year. It doesn’t just put her on the map, it puts the society on the map, and she’s really done that.”

Shifter took an active role in helping others whose lives were suddenly changed. She was part of the LLS’s Patti Kaufmann First Connection peer-to-peer program.

“As Ariel was going through treatment herself, we connected her with a college student and her parents so they could have that support,” Kersting said. “Ariel led the Gateway Chapter and helped refer other patients to the First Connection program.

“Her accomplishments tell you a lot about her leadership skills. Ariel worked on behalf of the LLS with the Boy and Girl of the Year. What she brings to patients and their families is hope.”

Cancer treatment threw a curveball to Shifter, who has always been an ultra-organized life planner.

“Before I was diagnosed, I was planning to get my Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and I had done everything I needed to for my resume,” she said. “After I was diagnosed, I put that on hold and decided to wait another year and see what happened. And throughout that year, I came to understand that wasn’t where my passions were.”

Fast-forward to the present, and a healthy young woman with a job that’s a perfect fit. Shifter has been in remission since September 2014.

“I love the job,” she said. “Being a part of the process for getting these drugs approved is really fascinating for me. It takes seven to 10 years, depending on what the drug is and the number of trials. At some point, the drugs I got were in this stage. They were experimental and had to be approved. 

“It took people like me and all the wonderful doctors and nurses that I work with to get it to where it is. Now it’s given to pretty much everybody that had my disease. It’s curable, and I’m fine now.”

A health scare can change a person’s perspective on life. In Shifter’s case, cancer and now being cancer-free has mellowed her.

“I still am and always was a strict planner,” she said. “Everything has to be in its place. I’ve gotten to the point now where I’m a little more relaxed and go-with-the-flow,  and a little more understanding that not everything has to have such a strict structure. 

“I have noticed that I think twice before really getting upset about little things. If I don’t feel good, I think, ‘I’ve felt much worse,’ so it’s made me more of a positive person.”