On a sunny summer afternoon in 2015, Sherry Martins was enjoying a lunch
date with her husband, Efren Martinez. About 24 hours later, she was in
an emergency room fighting for her life.
She had gone to
St. Jude Medical Center at the urging of her coworkers at the Orange County Women's Jail,
where Martins was a sheriff at the time. She was on a 12-hour shift the
day after having lunch with Efren when she got severe abdominal cramps.
"I can usually tolerate pain pretty well, but it hurt so much that
it got to the point where I looked pale and I couldn't swallow water
without feeling pain," she says. Martins thought the emergency room
doctor would diagnose her with a bad case of food poisoning--instead,
she was told she had stage 2 colon cancer.
"The doctor said, 'Let's do a CT scan, you're not looking
well,'" Martins says. "They did blood work and scans and
they called me back to a room; I still was not concerned. The nurse asked
me to put on a hospital gown and I was going to get an IV. I thought I
was dehydrated; I texted my husband and coworkers that I was fine, they
were just going to check me out. At that point the surgeon, Dr. Scott
Sainburg, walked in and said, 'Sherry, you have cancer and you are
going into surgery.'" Two tumors in her colon had ravaged part
of her intestines, which required immediate repair before causing potentially
Martins was in shock. "All I said was, 'I'm 42, I have a 6-month-old
daughter and I'm by myself right now. Am I going to die alone?'"
She came through the surgery--in which Dr. Sainburg, MD, a board-certified
gastroenterologist, removed two tumors and 32 lymph nodes--but her cancer
treatment was just beginning. One of the first questions doctors tried
to answer was why Martins had colon cancer--while immediate relatives
had other types of cancer, colon cancer didn't run in the family.
(Her brother has since been diagnosed with the disease.) And colon cancer
is usually more prevalent among people 50 and older, although a recent
study found the
risk of colorectal cancers is increasing for people younger than 50. In the end, her oncologist,
Sanjay Sharma, MD, determined Martins has Lynch Syndrome, a hereditary genetic condition
that makes her more disposed to certain types of cancers, including colon cancer.
After the surgery, Martins was briefly hospitalized for blood clots, and
she started chemotherapy a few months later, although she had to stop
soon after because it made her too sick. There were times when Martins
fell into a depression but she was fortunate to draw strength from the
people who loved and cared for her.
"My husband has been my biggest supporter; he's very active when
it comes to my health," Martins says. "My daughter, Ava, was
my strength--there were times I was so depressed I didn't want to
leave my room, but I realized that would take away from the time I could
spend with her. And Lynch Syndrome is genetic so I have to be an advocate
for her until she is 18."
There were cheerleaders from outside her family as well. "I love Dr.
Sharma. He was so supportive from the beginning. When I first saw him
at the hospital, I said, 'Please don't let me die,' and he
said, 'Sherry, you're not going to die.' He's a great
doctor who really put things in layman's terms, and his staff is fabulous."
Dr. Sharma, a board-certified oncologist and hematologist, is part of St.
Jude Heritage Medical Group and works at the St. Jude
Crosson Cancer Institute. "One of the good things about the cancer center is that we have
a whole team approach," he says. "The members of the team aren't
the same for all patients; it depends on what the patient needs and what
they are going through. Sherry had a difficult time in terms of treatment
and side effects so she had a nurse navigator to help her, she saw the
palliative care nurse practitioner, and, through chemotherapy, she met
numerous cancer center health care professionals, so she had a huge amount
Her coworkers also rallied around her. When she got sick, Martins had just
returned to her job after having Ava--she had no more hours to take off
from work. "So people from different departments throughout my division
donated their extra hours to me, and it gave me a full year off from work,"
Martins says, adding that the gesture meant her medical coverage would
also stay intact.
Martins has since returned to her job as deputy sheriff, this time at the
Orange County Central Court in Santa Ana, and she is vigilant about her
colon health with scans every six months, endoscopy procedures twice a
year and an annual colonoscopy. She also strives to lead a healthy lifestyle.
"I've always been in pretty good shape, so I do light exercise,
some jogging or running when I can. I try to eat healthier and stay away
from fast food, and I try to keep my stress level low.
"I also stay in tune with my body because it lets me know when something
is not right. After I went to lunch that day, I didn't feel right--that
was a huge red flag I ignored. I've had bad stomach issues in the
past, and maybe I should have gone to a doctor then. Now, if there's
any little thing that happens with my body, I always ask, 'What is
this?' and document it and go to the doctor."
As Martins shares her story, she exudes the indomitable spirit that has
guided her. For her, being positive has helped her healing process. "I
always tell people to be good to others; we're only here for a minute
and we don’t know what tomorrow brings."