As Martin Truex Jr. closed in on the biggest victory of his career last week, the Fox Sports cameras kept cutting to a blonde woman with a pixie haircut standing near Truex’s Furniture Row Racing team at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
If few outside of NASCAR circles knew Sherry Pollex’s story before the Coca-Cola 600, they will now.
After Truex’s record-breaking, nearly wire-to-wire victory in Charlotte, much was written about the near misses and heartbreak he’s experienced throughout his career, including the Daytona 500 in February, when he lost to Denny Hamlin by 4 inches.
While Truex’s perseverance has paid off during a hot streak he’ll ride into Pocono on Sunday, Pollex, his longtime girlfriend, is in a fight for her life.
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Pollex was diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years ago at 35. During a six-hour surgery, doctors removed Pollex’s uterus, her ovaries, appendix, a foot of her colon and several liters of malignant fluid.
She lost 27 pounds during the surgery and days following. But she didn’t lose her will.
Pollex knows the grim statistics of ovarian cancer. An estimated 22,000 women will be diagnosed with the disease this year, and an estimated 14,000 will die from complications related to ovarian cancer in 2016, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Pollex remains undaunted.
I just tell myself every day that I wake up that I’m going to be different. I’m going to be that person who beats it. Because that’s what you do.
“The survival rates for this disease suck. They’re terrible. But there are women out there that survive it,” Pollex said this week during a 45-minute interview at Truex’s Mooresville shop. “I just tell myself every day that I wake up that I’m going to be different. I’m going to be that person who beats it.
“Because that’s what you do. That’s how you get out of bed every day. If not, you’d sit at home and feel sorry for yourself, and I don’t have time for that. I’ve got a life to live.”
Pollex’s life is a busy one.
She’s the owner of a women’s clothing and accessories boutique in Mooresville, founder of Truex’s charitable foundation and a fitness enthusiast who works out at least 30 minutes every day.
And for the past 22 months, Pollex has been both a cancer patient and advocate.
Started with stomach pain
Pollex, a Michigan native whose father, Greg, ran a NASCAR team on what is now called the Xfinity series, had been the picture of health before she began experiencing stomach pain in the summer of 2014. Thin and active throughout her life, Pollex started feeling tired and bloated – as though she were six months pregnant, she says.
She visited several doctors and underwent various tests, which revealed cysts on her ovaries. But without a family history of ovarian cancer, Pollex was told the cysts would likely go away, which they do in 60 to 70 percent of women who develop them, according to experts.
But when Pollex’s pain persisted, Lake Norman surgeon Ryan Heider ordered a CT scan. The images that came back were stark: Cancer that started in Pollex’s ovaries had cobwebbed through her body.
“With that cancer, they say it’s like taking a handful of sand and throwing it inside you,” Truex said. “It just goes everywhere.”
Five days after her diagnosis, Pollex was on an operating table at Presbyterian Hospital. Matt McDonald, one of only seven gynecological oncologists in Charlotte, performed the surgery with help from another surgeon.
A grueling surgery
It was a long, grueling procedure known as debulking, in which doctors seek to remove as much as cancerous tissue as possible to make chemotherapy more effective.
“You open somebody’s belly up and if there’s a piece of cancer on something, you’re cutting it out,” McDonald said. “This was a gut-wrenching thing to do on a 35-year-old lady that didn’t have children at that point.
“We took a lot of things out of that sweet child.”
Because of the expedited nature of Pollex’s surgery, doctors were not able to save and freeze any eggs before the procedure.
Truex said he and Pollex had just begun discussing the possibility of children before she got sick.
“That was the hardest part for her because she wanted to be a mom and we were actually just starting to talk about maybe having kids and whether we wanted to or didn’t,” Truex said. “She always wanted kids and I was kind of holding her off. It’s tough to think about now, but you can’t turn back time.”
Determined to recover
For the first six months following her surgery, Pollex received eight-hour chemotherapy treatments every Monday through IV ports in her arm and ribcage.
The chemo left her fatigued and with little appetite. Some days the only thing she could eat were dry Cheerios.
But she was determined not to feel sorry for herself. Pollex challenged herself to get out of bed and do something physical each day.
Sometimes that meant walking to the end of the quarter-mile driveway and back to the Lake Norman home where she and Truex live. The next day she’d do it twice.
Gradually Pollex’s chemo sessions decreased to once a month. She had more energy and began traveling with Truex to races again.
“Yeah, I still didn’t have hair,” Pollex said. “But I didn’t care because I just wore my wigs.”
Pollex’s long, blonde wigs matched her typical hairstyle and color. And because she’d always been thin, some in the NASCAR community didn’t realize the seriousness of her illness.
As she prepared for this year’s Catwalk for a Cause – Truex’s annual fashion show to raise money for pediatric cancer – a friend suggested having one of the young cancer patients take off Pollex’s wig while the two walked the runway.
‘This is who I am’
During auditions for the event, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was surprised when Pollex’s wig was pulled off, revealing hair that had thinned and turned gray as a result of the chemo.
“Her wig looked so real. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I don’t think I’d ever seen her with it off before. But she looked amazing,” Earnhardt said Friday. “I think when you see such a drastic change in someone it certainly drives it home what they’ve been through.”
Pollex said Earnhardt suggested she “should just rock your short hair.”
That is what Pollex did, dyeing it platinum blonde and spiking it in the front before the Charlotte race. While Truex ran the last several of his record 392 (of 400) laps, the Fox broadcasters pointed out it was the first time Pollex had been to a race without a wig since her diagnosis.
“I just decided, this is who I am. Cancer’s a part of me. I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not anymore. This is what I’ve been through and this is what cancer looks like,” Pollex said during her interview with the Observer.
“When I was bald and had no eyebrows and no eyelashes, it was scary looking. I looked like an alien.”
A champion for awareness
Pollex finished her chemo treatments earlier this year, a few weeks before Truex narrowly lost to Hamlin in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history.
She visits McDonald every three months for a checkup and bloodwork. And while the cancer has not returned, Pollex doesn’t like to use expressions such as “cancer free” and “remission.”
Pollex, who was working in sports marketing when she met Truex through a mutual acquaintance, has become a champion for ovarian cancer awareness.
Shortly after Pollex was diagnosed, she and Truex expanded his foundation to benefit both pediatric and ovarian cancer patients. She visited Congress last year with the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance to lobby for funding for an early detection test and will return to Washington in July for the OCNA’s advocacy day.
She’s also served as a spokesperson for OVA1, a diagnostic blood test designed to assess the cancer risk for women with pelvic masses.
Pollex also had teal (the color for ovarian cancer awareness) bracelets made that come with cards detailing the symptoms. On her 37th birthday last month, Pollex launched her website, sherrystrong.org, to shed further light on the disease.
“Without education and awareness we can’t get anywhere. We can’t get any closer to helping people survive. So this is a huge part of it,” she said. “If I can be that person, maybe that was God’s plan for me all along. Whether I die from it or not doesn’t matter to me. I just want to help as many people as I can while I’m here.”
Without education and awareness we can’t get anywhere. We can’t get any closer to helping people survive. So this is a huge part of it.
Sprint Cup driver Ryan Newman, whose wife, Krissie, is close with Pollex, said Pollex’s life work changed when she learned she had cancer.
“It went from taking care of her retail store to doing a lot more with ovarian cancer awareness, cancer in general,” said Newman, who also mentioned Pollex’s efforts with Truex’s foundation.
“It opened her eyes and made her even more passionate about the things she was already passionate about.”
A change in Truex, too
Before his dominant victory last weekend, Truex had experienced some tough luck this season. Truex admits a few years ago he would not have handled it well.
“My career had always been up and down and I felt like I always had bad luck and all these weird things happened to me that shouldn’t have. I took that stuff really hard,” Truex said. “If I had a bad race it took me three or four days to get over it. Not anymore.”
While Pollex and Truex celebrated in Victory Lane last weekend, friends and family bombarded them with more than 150 text messages. Among those sending congratulatory texts was McDonald, the oncologist Truex called a “friggin’ rock star.”
McDonald told Pollex he was in tears watching last weekend’s developments.
“That makes two of us,” Pollex texted back. “Without you I wouldn’t be here for this moment.”
McDonald said Pollex’s can-do spirit has been an inspiration to the staff and other patients at his Charlotte office.
“She is a saucy lady and I say that in a complimentary fashion,” McDonald said. “She’s not afraid of anything. She’s not afraid to tell you anything and she is a fighter and a fighting spirit with a sweet smile on her face at all times.”
A platform through NASCAR
Pollex feels good of late, though she’s not the same person she was before getting cancer. With scar tissue running from her pubic bone to her ribcage, she has trouble running.
So she does light jogging, as well as Pilates two days a week and yoga three times a week. Last Wednesday Pollex took her charcoal lab Boden to the vet and stopped by her Lavendar boutique before hustling into Truex’s shop for a media interview, during which she sipped on a green smoothie.
Now that she has her energy back, Pollex doesn’t want to waste any of it.
“The mental part is, OK, I can do this. I can survive this,” she said. “I can be that person that can be different. I can live long enough to educate other women about this disease and change the world and make a difference. And use this platform that I have through NASCAR to do that. And that’s what I tell myself every day.”