September Featured Story – National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month!

‘I Was 35 and Healthy—Until I Was Diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer’

What Sherry Pollex wants you to know about the disease that almost took her life.

BY CASSIE SHORTSLEEVE for Women’s Health Magazine September 22, 2016

Two years ago, Sherry Pollex was feeling off: She was super bloated (“I looked like I was three months pregnant,” she remembers) and had extreme abdominal pain.

“You know when something doesn’t feel right,” she says. “And I just knew something was really wrong.”

Like any health-conscious woman, she went to her primary care physician and was referred to an ob-gyn. The conclusion of an ultrasound: benign ovarian cysts. Nothing more.

Unfortunately, the doctors were wrong. Sherry’s pain worsened to debilitating pelvic woes. So just before jetting off on vacation, she called a family friend, a gastro-surgeon, and asked for a CT scan.

When the results came in, the doctor told Sherry to come in immediately—and to bring her family: The scan revealed tumors all over her pelvic area and abdomen.

Sherry was diagnosed with ovarian cancer—specifically stage III primary peritoneal carcinoma.

“When someone tells you something scary like that, that moment is forever ingrained in your head,” she says. “I was in shock. I was 35 and perfectly healthy with no family history of ovarian cancer.”

Sherry’s boyfriend, NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr., and her mother broke down in tears. Her response? “I said to the doctor, ‘What do I need to do to beat this?’” she says. “In that moment, I was in survival mode.”

Sherry’s doctor urged her to get to a major medical center—fast. If she didn’t, she could be dead by Christmas. It was August 7.

A Road to Recovery

Five days post-diagnosis, Sherry underwent a grueling seven-hour debulking surgery, where a gynecologic oncology surgeon removes as much of the malignant tumors as possible, enhancing the effectiveness of chemotherapy—of which Sherry would need 17 months of.

Starting chemo a month after that kind of a procedure was tough, especially considering it was pumped through her belly.

“I felt like my body was just recovering from the surgery and then they wanted to hit me with eight hours of toxic chemicals once a week,” says Sherry. “I was emotionally and physically exhausted.” Sherry lost her tastebuds, her appetite, 27 pounds of healthy weight, her eyebrows, eyelashes, and hair.

But as she puts it: “You don’t get a reprieve when you’re fighting a deadly disease,” she says. “You just dig in and do it. You want to live so bad.”

A long-time advocate of pediatric cancer through the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation, she also felt the need to fight for the children. “What a hypocrite I would be if I had spent all these years teaching my cancer kids to fight and then didn’t try to beat it myself,” she says.

So she fought.

The Aftermath

After major surgery and almost a year-and-a-half of chemo, today—two years later—Sherry says she’s lucky: She’s cancer-free—for now. “I never take one day of being healthy for granted,” she says. “I know that any day, cancer can rear its ugly head again.”

She’s right: Statistics from Texas Oncology suggest the recurrence rate for advanced stage ovarian cancer is between 60 and 80 percent.

Though she suffers from fibrosis—when scar tissue builds up causing pain—Sherry’s doing relatively well. “I had to change some of the things I was doing physically,” she says. Because of the scar tissue, once normal runs are now too painful, so she’s taken up yoga and pilates and walks three miles a day. These are small changes in the scheme of things. “Altering your lifestyle isn’t a huge sacrifice when you’re just happy to be alive,” says Sherry.

Of course, emotionally, it’s been hard. It “was tough to know that I couldn’t have kids,” she says. (Sherry’s surgery included a complete hysterectomy.)

But out of struggle comes a bright side. “You notice the sky is bluer and the grass is greener,” she says. “You wake up each day grateful to be there to make memories with family and friends. And you have a newfound purpose to educate other women about your experience so they don’t have to go through what you’ve been through.”

A New Mission

Since her diagnosis and treatment, Sherry started the site sherrystrong.org—a resource to empower women to know their bodies and recognize symptoms of ovarian cancer. “You have to be your own advocate for your health,” she says. “Had I not called our family friend and told him how much pain I was in that day, I wouldn’t be here today.” Only you know your body best. And sometimes you need to be the one to demand a test or ask questions.

Sherry is passionate about educating people on the options you have if, one day, you’re faced with a cancer scare. She’s a huge supporter of the Vermillion OVA1 blood test—the first FDA-approved blood test to evaluate cancer risk in a pelvic mass. “You can ask for it in the doctor’s office if you’re diagnosed with a pelvic mass,” says Sherry, noting she wishes she knew about it when she was told she had “benign” ovarian cysts.

OVA1 results help ID cancer risk and guide next steps—namely toward a gynecologic oncology surgeon if you’re at high risk for cancer. (If you have a pelvic mass, you can also take a quiz at knowpelvicmass.com to learn about your risk.)

Family history plays a huge role in knowing disease risk, too. While Sherry wasn’t “at risk” due to family history, if you are, testing for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation can help you know where you stand.

“Knowledge is power,” says Sherry. “And we can’t change the survival statistics until we teach women what to look for and what to ask for.”

While ovarian cancer may be rare—the number is still significant. More than 22,000 women are diagnosed every year, and more than 14,000 women die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

And as Sherry says, “What is the definition of ‘rare’ when it’s your sister, daughter, or mother?”

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