NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr. and his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, sank into each other’s arms in celebration in Victory Lane after last year’s Coca-Cola 600.
Tears rolled down Pollex’s cheeks as cameras flashed all around her and Truex.
She leaned a little into him for support, feeling the weight of everything they had accomplished.
Truex had finally won at a track that irked him so often earlier in his career – setting the record for laps led in a race as he did it.
Pollex had just finished a grueling and physically devastating surgery and 18 months of chemotherapy to treat ovarian cancer.
In Victory Lane with Truex, the public – and a national television audience – saw Pollex in remission and without the wig she had worn since potent chemo treatments had made her lose her hair.
“It was a special moment just knowing that she was healthy and doing well, and that we were both back on track,” Truex said.
Sunday, they return to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600.
“The 600 will always have a special place in our heart,” said Pollex. “That feeling of just, ‘Yes, finally. After all of that, something is going to go our way.’”
Charlotte will again carry enormous weight. Truex has two victories this season, but the couple’s fight to keep her healthy is ongoing a year and a half into remission.
‘This is my battle’
The vulnerability Pollex showed in that Victory Lane celebration reverberated through the NASCAR community and beyond.
“I remember thinking, ‘for anyone that hasn’t seen me (like this) before, here I am now!” she said. “This is me, this is my battle, this is who I am now. I am a cancer survivor.’ ”
And for Pollex, it was a turning point.
“I could have easily sat on the sidelines and fought my disease quietly and not told anyone,” she said. “I made my battle public. To me, though, it wasn’t even a choice. It was the thought that, ‘what a disservice I’m doing to other women if I don’t speak up about this disease. Because no one is talking about it!’”
Pollex fights to bring more awareness to ovarian cancer, including early diagnosis and symptoms that often go unnoticed.
There’s also a third stage, after diagnosis and treatment, that nobody discusses, Pollex explained.
She calls it “the cliff.”
When she went into remission, there were still thousands of questions, doubts and worries. She needed to keep her body strong, but didn’t know where to start. The doctors who had been by her side for two years had turned to other patients.
“Life after cancer. What does it feel like? When the doctor goes, ‘OK, you’re done with chemotherapy! Go on with your life!’ ” she laughed.
After hospital visits two days a week – treatment, blood work and more – she was on her own.
“You’ve told me where to be for 18 months and now you’re going to push me off a cliff and tell me to go home and live my life?” she said. “How do you even go about doing that? What’s your new normal?”
Feeling a little strange
Pollex found that her “new normal” was spending every moment of her day keeping her body balanced, and advocating for others.
She started sherrystrong.org, a branch of the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation that addresses openly the issues women have to face post-remission.
Some of those issues are difficult to talk about – premature menopause after younger women lose their ovaries and/or uterus to eradicate the cancer, for example. Others, like advice on non-toxic skincare practices, are just helpful.
Pollex has shared her journey bluntly. She does yoga, acupuncture, meditates and consumes a lot of raw foods and green smoothies. She has removed all toxic products – down to the materials in the furniture – from their house. She also runs her own business and the MTJR Foundation.
Last week, her glitzy, eighth annual “Catwalk for a Cause” raised more than $550,000 for pediatric and ovarian cancer research and patient support.
But amid the glamour of the star-studded event, Pollex said she felt a little strange. She thought it was just nerves, but the feeling persisted.
She told her doctor, who administered a CA-125 test that measures the amount of cancer antigen 125 in the blood – a common test for women who have had ovarian cancer, but one that can be inaccurate, according to the Mayo Clinic.
He found a slight elevation in Pollex’s, and scheduled a routine scan.
‘All I ever asked for is a chance to fight’
Pollex will have that routine scan in the next several days.
According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance, patients originally diagnosed in Stage III, as Pollex was, have a 70 to 90 percent chance of recurrence. If the cancer returns, she goes back to chemotherapy.
She already had a six-hour surgery in 2014, before her first round of chemotherapy. Doctors removed her uterus, her ovaries, appendix, a foot of her colon and several liters of malignant fluid to eradicate a series of tumors.
Thirty-nine percent of women with Stage III ovarian cancer are still living after five years. But Pollex said she’s not afraid of death.
“I don’t believe that we’re all destined to be here forever, to grow old and be 80,” she said. “I think some people are destined to die young. And we have a purpose here on Earth, and maybe my purpose is to be an advocate for this disease.”
Instead, she agonizes about letting down the many women and children who look to her as an example.
“The only person that knows what will happen to me is God,” she said. “So I don’t get too caught up in whether I’m going to die from my cancer, it’s more the fear of letting other people, other women, down.
“I know it might sound weird. But (I’ve seen so many women) who don’t even get a chance to fight. And all I ever asked for is a chance to fight. So me having that opportunity, I think, is a blessing in itself.
“From here on out, everything is a bonus.”
Donate to Sherry and Martin’s cause at https://martintruexjrfoundation.org/donate-to-sherrystrong/