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 fatal damage.
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 of support."
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."
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.