During the last month of Jessica Sherrie’s pregnancy, she started experiencing severe back pain. She knew that pregnancy came with all sorts of aches and hoped that her pain would improve after delivery. When it didn’t, she learned shocking news: Sherrie had stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer.
“At one point the doctor brought up like ‘Oh it could be cancer’ and I was hoping it wasn't obviously,” the 35-year-old told TODAY. “In the back of my mind it started creeping up like, ‘Oh I could have cancer.’"
While the past year has been tough, she’s sharing her story to encourage others to seek help when something feels wrong.
“I hope that people are not scared to go to the doctor and find out if they have cancer because that could save their lives,” said Sherrie, who lives in Glendora, California. “I hope I can inspire people to take action right away when they experience symptoms.”
Pregnancy, pain and a pandemic
When the back pain started, Sherrie didn’t think much of it. She had had surgery for scoliosis in 2018 and was pregnant. She knew back pain was common in late pregnancy and with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was wary of leaving her house.
“Once I had my daughter and the medication wore off, I still had pain,” Sherrie explained. “I assumed it was my from my bad back.”
When the pain persisted, she visited her doctor and underwent numerous scans and tests. When she learned she had lung cancer last spring, she panicked: Her in-laws had died of lung cancer.
“I just immediately was like, ‘Oh this is a death sentence,’” Sherrie, who never smoked, recalled.
But the doctor assured her that it was non-small cell lung cancer, a less aggressive type of lung cancer. Still, she had tumors in her brain, spine and hips, making it stage 4, or incurable.
“I was pretty freaked out,” she said.
While it sounds scary, Sherrie’s doctor, Dr. Erminia Massarelli said that new treatments can help to make some late-stage cancers a more manageable illness.
“We tend to treat it like a chronic disease. So, basically like diabetic people need insulin in their lives, so a chronic form of cancer needs chronic treatment,” the co-director of the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center's lung cancer and thoracic oncology program told TODAY. “We tend to tailor the treatment so they don’t have as many side effects.”
Sherrie started treatment immediately. She first had radiation before she ended up at City of Hope, where she started chemotherapy. But she had a reaction to that type and spent nearly a month in the hospital.
“I couldn't have visitors,” Sherrie said. “It was pretty scary and sometimes I felt really alone and just frightened.”
Even though it was tough, she kept thinking of her infant daughter, Regina.
“I was like ‘I'm going to beat this. I'm going to get out of here,’” she said. “That’s been my mentality this whole time. I have to get healthy. I have to get through this because I want to be there for my daughter.”
She also worried that her infant daughter wouldn’t remember her. But those fears were unwarranted.
“She was so happy to see me and I was so happy to see her,” Sherrie said.
Sherrie started a new chemotherapy regimen and started working with a physical therapist. At the time, she was using a walker. When she started walking without it, she fell and broke her hip and needed to be in a wheelchair.
“I couldn’t walk for three months,” she said. “I was still doing the chemo and still staying motivated then the holidays happened and I contracted COVID-19.”
She called Massarelli, who started an infusion of monoclonal antibodies for COVID-19.
Lung cancer in non-smokers
While non-smokers often feel stunned when they receive a lung cancer diagnosis, these cancers do impact people who have never tried the habit.
“The data shows that about 10 to 15% of lung cancers arise in non-smokers,” Massarelli said. “We know that environmental exposure and genetic factors are involved.”
Symptoms of lung cancer include:
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pain.
- Back pain (sometime a sign that cancer has spread to spine or bones).
- Persistent cough.
While doctors often don’t think of lung cancer in young patients, Massarelli urges health care providers to take patients' concerns seriously. When found early, it’s easier to treat lung cancer.
“If symptoms (persist) for a long time I would advise the primary care physicians to really look into the cause,” she said.
Motherhood with stage 4 cancer
Even though Sherrie faced loads of complications over the past year, she has recently learned good news.
“The tumors in my brain have shrunk so much that they’re microscopic, they can’t even see them and most of the tumors in my lungs are gone, except there’s just one left,” she said.
But doctors found new tumors in her liver and hip. Now, she’s on a new drug regimen and she’s hopeful that it will help. She admits that having lung cancer feels overwhelming at times.
“We were completely shocked to hear that I had it,” Sherrie said. “I haven’t really seen any young people like me in cancer treatment.”
But spending time with Regina, 1, and watching her grow keeps Sherrie motivated.
“I wasn't able to like carry her and walk around the house. I'd have to be sitting down … that was a hard time for me,” Sherrie said. “I just want to hold my daughter. But it's OK now, I can hold her all the time.”