Fueled to Bring Awareness and Give Back
by Kaylene Isherwood
With NASCAR running in her blood, Sherry Pollex has been around auto racing since she was a young kid. When she was growing up, her dad owned a NASCAR team. And for the past 15 years, she’s been in a relationship with NASCAR champion Martin Truex Jr.
In 2007, the pair started the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation with the goal of using their NASCAR platform to help children with cancer. The Foundation’s signature charity event – Catwalk for a Cause – sees childhood cancer survivors strut the runway with NASCAR drivers to raise money and help drive awareness for childhood and ovarian cancers.
A diagnosis of her own
After seven years advocating for children with cancer and seeing first-hand what they go through, Sherry received a cancer diagnosis herself at age 35.
“We’ve been advocates for children fighting childhood cancer for so long, and now here I am with this disease,” Sherry shares in a recent interview with Coping magazine. “Now, I have to show them how strong I can be so that I can set an example for what they’re going through.”
“If you really look at your life, no matter what your situation is and how bad your disease is, there’s always something to be thankful for when you wake up in the morning.”
For months, Sherry had felt unwell – feeling bloated, experiencing changes in her stool and more frequent urination, and having severe abdominal and back pain. Over six months, she was bounced around from doctor to doctor and told she had irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, ovarian cysts, nothing to be alarmed about. But after the pain became so severe that she was spending some days fully bent over, Sherry went to see a family friend – a gastroenterologist – who ordered her a CT scan.
On August 7, 2014, she heard those words, you have cancer.
Her positive mindset
Throughout her cancer diagnosis and treatment, Sherry has shared her journey on social media and her blog – often displaying positivity, joy, and gratitude. When asked about how she manages to keep such a positive mindset, Sherry says she started a gratitude journal where she writes down three things she’s grateful for every morning.
“If you really look at your life, no matter what your situation is and how bad your disease is, there’s always something to be thankful for when you wake up in the morning,” she shares. “But even on the days when I didn’t feel good through chemotherapy, I tried to find small moments of gratitude throughout the day.”
The best advice that I could ever give to a cancer patient that’s newly diagnosed is to stay off the Internet. The first and number one people you need to trust is your team of medical doctors: your oncologist, your integrative doctors, your nutritionist, whatever team of doctors you’ve built up around you. They’ve had years of schooling for a reason.
The second most important thing to remember is you’re a statistic of one. You aren’t your disease, so whatever you’ve read or what other people have told you, that’s not you. That’s not who you are. You are your own person. You are your own disease, so remember at the end of the day, your body is going to react differently to the drugs. Your body is going to react differently to what kind of healing foods you use. You know what’s best for you.
Follow your gut and do the things that you know are the most important to you and your family and giving yourself the best shot that you can possibly give yourself to survive this disease.
The CT scan revealed she had stage III primary peritoneal carcinomatosis, a form of ovarian cancer that originates in the pelvis. It was advanced and had spread throughout her body. The day after she received the news, Sherry went to see a gynecological oncologist, and five days later she underwent an eight-hour debulking surgery and radical hysterectomy. Then, a few weeks after that, she started six months of intraperitoneal chemotherapy.
A year and four months following her initial diagnosis, Sherry received the news every cancer survivor dreads – she was having a recurrence. In a blog post from 2017, Sherry writes, “I knew what my chances were. I knew they weren’t good. But I refused to live by the numbers, the statistics. I refused to wake up every day and think about the fact that my chance of having a recurrence was roughly 85 percent.”
Sherry has now completed 17 months of chemotherapy. Currently, she’s in a period of remission and taking oral chemotherapy.
Sherry says she feels her outlook on life – and her diagnosis – has changed since she began this journey. “I don’t look at my disease as the enemy, and I don’t look at it like I fight it every day,” Sherry says. “I look at it like it’s a part of who I am, and I have to learn how to live with it. If I can do that and have a really great quality of life, then I can have a great life here on this earth.”
In September 2018, at the inaugural Bank of America Roval 400 in Charlotte, NC, Sherry and Martin brought ovarian cancer awareness front and center during Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Martin’s race car was wrapped in teal, the color of ovarian cancer awareness. And Sherry was asked to be the honorary pace car driver for the event.
“I don’t look at my disease as the enemy, and I don’t look at it like I fight it every day. I look at it like it’s a part of who I am, and I have to learn how to live with it.”
It wasn’t on my bucket list, but it was after I was asked,” Sherry says. “It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. Everything about that day was so perfect. It couldn’t have been written any better – him [Martin] coming up on my bumper and pushing me around the track during the pace lap and the field dropping back to allow him to ride side by side with me. I have chills just thinking about it. I cried the whole three laps all the way around the track.”
Continuing to give back
Earlier this year, Sherry turned 40 – an age many doctors didn’t expect she’d make it to. She hasn’t let her diagnosis or treatment get in the way of giving back. If anything, it has fueled her to do even more. Following her diagnosis, the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation rebranded to include ovarian cancer in addition to childhood cancer, which both share September as their awareness month.
Additionally, when she was in the hospital, Sherry Strong (a division of the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation) was born. It’s not only a hashtag on social media and a website empowering women about their health and ovarian cancer diagnosis, but it has become a movement teaching and inspiring women to care for themselves.
“It ended up becoming much more than just a site helping women fight ovarian cancer,” Sherry adds. “It’s been really humbling to see it grow and see how many women follow it.”
On top of that, the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation will open the first Sherry Strong integrative oncology clinic in 2020 at Novant Hospital in Charlotte, NC, where Sherry received treatment. The first Martin Truex Jr. Foundation Children’s Emergency Department is being built at Novant Hospital in Huntersville, NC. And the pair is hoping to open more clinics as they continue their philanthropy toward ovarian and childhood cancers.
In addition to writing a blog, running the Sherry Strong website, and owning a clothing boutique in Mooresville, NC, Sherry is also traveling around the country for motivational speaking engagements and taking part in seminars alongside oncologists. She also travels part-time to Martin’s races.
“It’s a lot to juggle, but I discovered that I can’t do it all,” Sherry admits. “I have to manage my time the best I can. I know everybody feels that way. On those days when I feel overwhelmed, I just take a step back and remember what’s really important to me and what I need to work on first. And most of the time, it’s taking care of me first and then everything else comes second.”
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2019.