Community Papers

Cancer battle a family affair

Owners Lori and Don Robertson of Elliott Row Men
Owners Lori and Don Robertson of Elliott Row Men's Wear in their downtown store this week. The couple have battled the adversity of Don's rare form of cancer for over a decade but keep on smiling, living every day to its fullest.
— image credit: Mark Brett/Western News

Everyday is a good day for Dan and Lori Robertson. And why not? They have a loving, committed relationship, two wonderful sons and are growing a successful downtown business which is unique in Canada.

What the average shopper who comes through the doors of Elliott Row Men’s Wear doesn’t see, however, is the constant pain Don endures and the debilitating effect of the chemotherapy drug he takes each evening, which keeps him alive.

In the medical community Don is somewhat of an anomaly, believed to be the world’s longest known survivor of a very rare form of cancer called gastrointestinal stromal tumour or GIST.

But to his friends, family and others suffering from cancer he meets along the way, Don is a pillar of strength and a very bright ray of hope at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

His warm smile and firm handshake belies the struggles he has faced for over a decade, including more than a half-dozen major surgeries and twice being told by doctors to put his affairs in order.

“I’ve had time to come to terms with my life and there are even times now when I think I’m the luckiest guy on Earth and that’s the attitude I’ve decided to take,” said Don. “I’m very lucky in that I have a story to tell and I’m still around to tell it because there are a lot of people who are not around.

“A lot of people have terrible things in their lives and not cancer so any story that can give people something positive to hang onto is important. It kicks the living daylights out of me but I have a wonderful life.”

The Penticton businessman regularly shares his story with other cancer patients through the BC Cancer Foundation.

There are even times when he will offer support without even being asked.

That was the case awhile ago when he overheard a man talking in the waiting room of a Kelowna medical clinic about his recent diagnosis of lung cancer.

“I’m a stranger right, but I couldn’t just sit idly by so I went over and stood him up and hugged him for about two minutes and told him a bit of my story,” Don recalled.

“Afterwards the man’s mother in law came over and squeezed my hand and said, ‘thank you so much.’”

Don’s problems began in 1994 at the age of 32. One day at the store he began experiencing extreme pains in his side. After calling Lori he was rushed taken to hospital with what was believed was appendicitis and underwent emergency surgery that night.

“I woke up the next morning and found they had removed a six-inch tumour from my abdomen and it was at that time my wife also informed me we were pregnant with our second child,” said Don.

“Luckily it was  benign but then we move ahead five years to 1999 and they found another lump on my abdomen and in March they did a biopsy and it was a malignant tumour, several in fact.”

That began the long road of medical treatment and a very uncertain future with the likelihood of him surviving more than several years very slim.

At this point in the story Lori emerges as the saving grace.

“I have a wonderful wife who really has been the God send of my life,” said Don.

“You can imagine, a sick husband who we think is dying of cancer, two young boys, laundry, dishes, hockey, soccer, football paying bills and running a family business, paying the bills and she’s never complained once.”

For her part, Lori is quick to downplay her role, saying she only did what anyone else in her shoes would do in a similar situation.

“You just do it, it’s survival mode,” she said. “Of course when you love somebody so much you do that balancing act to make sure that everything works.”

Then in the 2004 Don began taking the “wonder drug” Gleevac which, although it did not put his cancer into remission, gave him and his family a whole new world.

During the entire time the couple point to their business and friends as a safety valve.

“It’s a lot of that blood, sweat and tears type of idea,” said Lori. “You put a lot of heart and soul into your business and  it gives you something else to focus on and that’s a tremendous help.”

Under her guidance Elliott Row has exceeded expectations and enjoyed it’s best year ever in 2013 with business up 34 per cent.

At this year’s Penticton and Wine Country Chamber of Commerce business excellence awards, the company received the Western News Retail Business Excellence award.

The Main Street location is currently undergoing major renovations and will soon be adding a complete line of designer women’s clothes.

The name too will be changing to Elliott Row 4HER 4HIM.

“It will be very exclusive store and this is a very happy story because our family has been dealt a major blow and rather than complaining we’re doing something,” said Don.

“I look at our store as an example of what our family is, an example of intestinal fortitude and drive and we don’t complain we try and do.”


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