Cancer Battle Inspires Young Survivor to Help Others Through Pelotonia
Midway through 17 rounds of chemotherapy to treat her ovarian cancer, Sherry Wang was exhausted, anxious and feeling sick. So, she decided to ride in the upcoming Pelotonia.
“I kept seeing signs for it all around the hospital,” said Wang, 24, who was treated at The James. “I was determined to not just beat this disease, but to crush it and I said, ‘I’m going to ride.’”
Wang—a bundle of energy, exuberance and determination—originally planned to ride the 45-mile Pelotonia route from Columbus to New Albany on August 5, 2017, but her chemotherapy treatments lasted longer than expected. Her final round of the treatment occurred on July 20, just 14 days before the start of the massive bike ride that raises funding for research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).
“I could barely even ride my bike the week before,” Wang said. “I couldn’t even ride 10 miles, and then I threw up. Three days before Pelotonia, I just said I’m going to go for it and do the 25-mile route. I had to do it.”
Wang’s cancer journey began soon after The Ohio State University graduate moved to Chicago in the summer of 2016 for a job as an account executive with Groupon. She began to experience sharp, stabbing pains that she initially passed off as menstrual cramps. “Then one day the pain became excruciating,” said Wang, who wound up in an ambulance and then the emergency room.
It took several months, an exploratory operation and weeks of wearing an abdominal drain before her doctors in Chicago discovered the cause of her problem. “I got the call on February 15,” Wang said. “My doctor said I had Stage IIB ovarian cancer. Everything changed.”
Wang moved back to her Dublin home to be close to her mom (Aiping Shao) and friends. Shao made a few calls, asked for recommendations and made an appointment for her daughter to see David Cohn, MD, director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at the OSUCCC – James.
“Dr. Cohn is my favorite person ever,” Wang said, adding that he put together a plan of action that gave her confidence. “I was walking this fine line between life and death and Dr. Cohn was so amazing. He’s so good at giving you hope; you can just tell he cares.”
“This wasn’t supposed to happen to someone my age”
It’s rare for a woman under 40 to have ovarian cancer, with most cases developing after menopause, according to the American Cancer Society. Half of all ovarian cancer diagnoses are in women 63 or older.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen to someone my age; I was supposed to be peaking now,” Wang said.
Fortunately, she had her mom at her side. “She’s my hero and I couldn’t have done this without her. She’s such a strong woman and she’s everything to me.”
This is the second time Shao has excelled in the role of caregiver for a loved one. Her husband and Sherry’s dad, Jim, died from colon cancer nine years ago.
“Everyone said I was my father’s daughter, that I was so much like him,” Wang said. “We shared so many things, but I never thought cancer would be one of them.”
“This was one of the best days of my life”
When Pelotonia arrived on August 5, Wang was ready—sort of. On the back of her jersey she wore a sign that read: “Finished 17 rounds of chemo on 7.20.17.” The message of hope resonated with many of her fellow riders.
“So many people talked to me as they rode by,” Wang said. “They were cheering me on and saying, ‘I’m riding for you,’ and chanting my name and encouraging me to keep going up the hills.”
Very slowly, Wang kept turning her pedals, determined to cross the finish line in Pickerington, where her mom was waiting.
“I get emotional talking about it,” she said. “Crossing the finish line was so much more than I could have imagined. It was the culmination of all the pain and suffering of the past year. And here I was, two weeks after going through the hardest thing ever in my life, riding with all these other amazing people. This was one of the best days of my life.”
Wang added another day to that list just a few weeks later, when she went to see Dr. Cohn, who told her she was cancer-free.
“This has totally changed me”
Cancer has changed Wang’s life—and her future. She plans to return to Ohio State to earn a nursing degree and eventually become a nurse practitioner specializing in OBGYN and oncology.
“This has totally changed me,” she said. “It’s given me the capacity to realize that every day you get up and walk around is a blessing. And now, my calling is to help other people.”
Wang will ride in the next Pelotonia event, with her eyes set on tackling the 100-mile route. She raised $13,650 in 2017, which made her a “high roller” (riders who raise at least $5000). The event’s $26.2 million fundraising total set a new Pelotonia record and increased the 9-year total to $156.4 million. Wang was one of the 433 Pelotonia riders (out of 8,022) who wore a “survivor” jersey in 2017.
“I’ll ride every year,” Wang said. “I have arms and legs and heart and every year it will be the anniversary of another year of being cancer-free, a chance to celebrate another milestone. Pelotonia is more magical than I could ever articulate; it’s a day of joy and hope and happiness.”