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Beating Cancer In 16 Days: The Shertenliebs Share Their Story

BOSTON (CBS) – For Mary Shertenlieb, the last three weeks have been an incredible journey.

The healthy mother of two and wife of Rich Shertenlieb, co-host of the wildly popular Toucher & Rich show on 98.5 The Sports Hub, went into the hospital last month thinking she had the flu.

When her condition did not improve, Mary had a blood test done. The results were alarming.

"The regular person is supposed to have between 4,000 and 10,000 'blast cells' per blood measurement. My wife had 240,000," Rich explained to WBZ-TV's Dan Roche.

Doctors told Mary she had AML, a rare form of leukemia. Eighty percent of her body had cancer, and the treatment would have to start immediately and aggressively.

Shertenlieb Family
The Shertenlieb family poses for a family portrait. (Photo from Rich Shertenlieb)

"When she got onto the floor that she was on with the other leukemia patients, they said she was the sickest at that time," said Rich. "It seemed everything they said seemed to be preparing us for the worst."

For the next seven days, doctors attacked Mary's cancer with aggressive and strong doses of chemotherapy. It required her to remain in the hospital, and she wouldn't be able to see her two kids, Hank and Max.

"My wife has only cried twice throughout this whole thing. The first time was when they told her that she would not be able to see our five and two-year-old throughout this whole ordeal," said Rich.

Rich On Mary's Diagnosis: 

A little more than two weeks later, Mary would be crying again. But the second time Mary shed tears, they were tears of joy.

The leukemia tore apart the Shertenliebs' world, but perhaps it didn't know who it was dealing with. As quickly and powerfully as it tried to knock Mary down, she struck right back – and with a knockout blow.

First came news that Mary would not need a bone marrow transplant. It meant the chemo was working, and her road to recovery looked a lot smoother. But no one could have imagined the news that followed.

A day later, the Shertenliebs learned that in just 16 days, Mary's cancer was gone.

"I'm at home with the kids putting them in the bath and I get a phone call from my wife, and she's sobbing uncontrollably," recalled Rich. "She goes, 'Rich, I'm cancer-free! There's a chance I could be home in less than two weeks to go see my boys.'

"I made her repeat it three or four times, and I tried to clarify, 'You mean you're in remission?' (She said) 'Yes, they said the words remission. I'm cancer-free!'

"I couldn't control myself," he said. "I remember reaching, trying to find my car keys and running around my kitchen three times and realizing that the car keys were in my hand. I get in the car and I call my parents and I'm a blabbering mess. I'm like, 'Mary's in remission, she's cancer free!' I get to the hospital and she's waterworks. She gives me the biggest hug."

After talking to doctors for more than an hour, the news finally sunk in.

"I still couldn't believe it and even the doctor had a hard time remembering a case that was as severe as Mary's that went from what she was to remission that quickly," said Rich. "It was truly a miracle."

Rich Recalls Getting The Good News: 

"It is the best news that somebody has delivered me in my whole life."

So how did this miracle happen? The Shertenliebs believe it was the power of prayer -- and the power of the Toucher & Rich show.

Shortly after the diagnosis, Rich took to Twitter to reveal the news to their devoted listeners. Co-host Fred Toucher broke down on air that morning as he asked all of their faithful followers – often referred to as the "T&Army" -- to send well-wishes and prayers to Rich, Mary and family.

"As soon as Fred started talking about it, I got thousands of texts, tweets and emails," recalled Rich.

The messages came from all over, passing on words of love and hope for the Shertenliebs. Some shared stories of their own or a loved one's battle with cancer, while others just relayed the family was in their thoughts and prayers. Each of them had one thing in common though: They each gave the Shertenliebs a little more hope.

"I've learned that (our listeners) can be more than people who just say, 'Hey, you're wrong about Tom Brady,' or even the nice ones who say, 'Hey, we love the show.' They became so much more than that; they became a family," said Rich.

The NFL Network's Albert Breer, a frequent guest on Toucher & Rich, reached out and shared the Shertenliebs' story with Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who battled leukemia during the 2012 season. Despite being diagnosed midway through the season, Pagano won his battle and returned to the sidelines in time for the playoffs.

He knew it would be a tough battle, but one that Mary could win. So Pagano sent a personal email to Rich and Mary passing along his own battle and support.

Mary Shertenlieb's Wall
A look at one of the walls in Mary Shertenlieb's hospital room. (Photo from Rich Shertenlieb)

"(Mary) knew Chuck Pagano and his story, and to get an email from him telling his story, we have it printed out and we actually put it on the wall in her hospital room," Rich said. "It was little acts like that that just helped us through."

The day Mary was told her cancer was in remission, Rich emailed Pagano a picture of the two of them.

"We're standing next to each other, her hair is all out, and she's got the biggest smile on her face," said Rich. "Underneath it I put 'remission' and 'thank you.'"

Mary is in remission, but she will remain in the hospital for at least another week as she waits for her white blood cell count to rise. She is still in air lock and anyone that stops by is required to wear masks during their brief visits, but Mary is patiently counting down the days when she can return home and be reunited with Hank and Max. Since being admitted to the hospital, the only contact she's had with them has been over the phone and through daily videos she recorded from her hospital bed.

Having not eaten since Feb. 17, Mary is also looking forward to a real meal when she gets back home, or as Rich explained, "the biggest meal she's had in her life."

Mary appeared on the Toucher & Rich show shortly after receiving her cancer-free news, and also sent Roche a video to again thank all of the T&R listeners for their love and support.

"Words can't describe all the power and strength all the prayer and support have given me. The power of prayer has really pulled me through," she said from her hospital bed. "Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I appreciate it more than you'll ever know. Thank you."

Toucher & Rich On Their Listeners: 

The fight has been taxing and draining on Rich and his family, and she'll continue to have multi-night hospital stays for the next six months. The hope is she will be 100 percent cancer free by September.

Through its good days and bad, Mary's battle has certainly changed the way Rich and his family looks at life.

"It's completely changed my outlook on the world. Sometimes you need a speed bump to make you slow down and realize the little things that really matter," he said. "Like my family who has helped us out, my friends who are bringing us meals every night.

"I've never seen a gathering like this. Our listeners, who gave us these words of comfort, I can never repay any of them and none of them want to be repaid -- and that's the shocking thing.

"I hope nobody gets in the situation that I'm in, but if they ever are, I pray that they have the same amount of love and caring that we got from our friends and family and I hope they realize just how many friends they do have. Because you'll know at a time like this."

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