Cancer Survivor Says ‘Be Your Own Advocate’—Here’s How

Seven years ago, Sherri Rollins, was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer that had spread to her liver. Her providers said she had a 10 percent chance of survival. She was age 47 at the time.

“I remember getting into the car after they told me I wouldn’t survive,” she says. “That never even sunk in for me. All I was thinking was that I was going to get the cancer removed and get treatment and everything was going to be fine.”

After chemotherapy and surgery, it seemed she had beaten the odds. But four years later, the cancer returned. Again, the outlook was bleak.

This time, the cancer had not spread to other organs. Rather, there was one tumor outside her colon and another tumor the size of a golf ball in her rectum.

She and her husband, Jason, got opinions from several specialists who said they couldn’t remove the cancer, or if they could, the colon wouldn’t function properly and she would need a colostomy bag for the rest of her life.

“I was not accepting that,” she says.

She continued her search until she found a doctor she believed had the skills and experience to match her needs. Again, she had chemotherapy and surgery. This time, her doctors included radiation during surgery, which reduced the odds that she would develop cancer again. This procedure, called intraoperative radiotherapy, or IORT, is a technique not available at all hospitals.

“The goal of intraoperative radiation is to treat the tissue around the site after a tumor has been removed,” says UNC Health radiation oncologist Ted Yanagihara, MD, PhD. “There is risk of the cancer coming back in that area, and we sometimes will use a high dose of radiation during the surgery to eliminate cancer cells and reduce that risk.”

After surgery, Rollins had a temporary ileostomy to remove waste while her colon healed. Within three months, her surgeon was able to remove it.

“She is very motivated,” says UNC Health gastrointestinal surgeon José Gaston Guillem, MD, MPH, who was Rollins’ surgeon. “She did not accept anything less than the best care possible.”

Helpful Tips for the Cancer Journey

Despite going through stage 4 cancer twice, Rollins tries to have an upbeat attitude. “I believe that faith and being positive play such a tremendous role in a cancer diagnosis,” she says, “and I have had physicians tell me that people who have that foundation have better outcomes.”

She wants to share what she has learned during her cancer journey to help others who are going through serious illnesses. Her suggestions are similar to advice from cancer doctors and nurse navigators:

When you notice symptoms, see a doctor. “When you have a gut feeling about something, 98 percent of the time, you’re right,” she says. “If you aren’t satisfied with what your doctor says, get a second opinion. You need to be your own advocate.”

Find a doctor you are comfortable with. “You’re fighting for your life,” she says. “Find someone you believe is fighting with you.”

Dr. Guillem agrees with Rollins that people should ask for a second opinion. “They have to be comfortable with the whole team and what they are providing,” he says.

Ask questions until you understand the answers. “My husband and I did a lot of research to learn what to ask,” she says. “We didn’t just do a Google search. We went to specific cancer information sites, where we learned a lot.”

Dr. Guillem says the answers may be difficult to hear, but “that knowledge lays the foundation for what’s to come,” including treatment, potential side effects, recovery time and possible outcomes. Often, he says, being informed motivates people to minimize narcotic use and tolerate the side effects of treatment.

Write down your questions before appointments. “Once you’re in the doctor’s office, all your questions just go right out of your head,” Rollins says. “Write them down ahead of time so you’ll remember to ask everything.”

Bring someone with you to your appointments. “It’s important to have someone there with you who is listening,” she says. “If you can, take the same person with you each time. My husband went with me to every appointment. He would hear things I would not. I was much more emotional than he was.”

Take notes. You’ll get a lot of important information at appointments, and it can be easy to miss key details. “Writing it all down helps you remember things you would otherwise forget,” Rollins says. Sometimes, her husband would record a conversation with the doctor for the couple to review later.

Be hopeful. “The statistics were not in my favor,” she says. “They only gave me a 10 percent chance of surviving, but it wasn’t zero. I told myself that people have beaten this. Why can’t I be one of them?”

Having a positive attitude can help motivate you to follow your doctor’s orders and avoid depression and anxiety, which are common among people facing cancer.

“Even if you don’t want to get up out of the hospital bed and walk, do it anyway,” she says. “Usually, the quicker you move, the better the outcome.”

Motivation to Fight

Rollins’ father died of colon cancer when he was age 52, and it influenced her own journey.

“I think he was sick a long time before he went to the doctor,” she says. “He believed he had to keep working because the whole family was depending on him. He was the strongest person I know, but I think he was afraid of having cancer and he just gave up. I didn’t want to do that.”

Rollins’ older son, Maddox, saw strength in his mother.

“He told me, ‘Your daddy gave up. He was too afraid to fight like you did. You are the strongest person I know,’” she says. “That made me feel good, like I was setting an example for my children to get the care they need.”

If your body is telling you that something isn’t right, don’t wait, and don’t settle. See your doctor soon. Need a doctor? Find one near you.