As a collegiate volleyball player turned coach, Sheri Sanders, 52, was used to playing through the pain. For nearly a year, she was experiencing pain in her lower back and groin. She eventually underwent a hip replacement and thought the pain was finally behind her. But a few weeks after her recovery, the pain persisted.
At that same time, the COVID-19 pandemic was overtaking the health care system. Sheri knew something wasn’t right, but fear kept her from going back to the doctor.
“I was pretty fearful of going to any medical center,” says Sanders. “Several of my family members were immunocompromised, including my brother who has heart failure, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t put them at risk.”
One day, the pain became too much. Sheri was doubled over and went to the nearest urgent care.
“I was terrified, but knew I had to do something,” says Sanders. “While in urgent care, I felt like I was potentially being exposed to all these people who had been exposed to COVID-19 or were sick and getting tested, and I just wanted to get out of there.”
During her physical exam, the urgent care physician felt her abdomen and immediately felt a mass. That mass ended up being a 10 cm cancerous tumor, roughly the size of a grapefruit.
Sheri immediately called her friend, who is a neurologist, and asked for a recommendation for an oncologist. He referred her to Nilesh Vora, M.D., oncologist and medical director of the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Medical Center.
After hearing the details of Sheri’s condition, Dr. Vora took her case to the multi-disciplinary tumor board. Tumor board meetings allow a physician to present a case to a room of other physicians, nurses and supportive staff, so together the group can collaborate and design a treatment plan that addresses the unique needs of that individual patient.
She was diagnosed with Stage II appendix cancer, meaning the cancer began in the appendix and had spread into the colon. The tumor board recommended immediate surgery to remove the mass, followed by chemotherapy.
Unfortunately, Sheri’s story isn’t unique. According to the American Medical Association, more than 40 percent of people skipped medical care in the early months of the pandemic.
“The effects of this pandemic could last for the next decade as patients catch up on the diagnosis that were missed due to delayed medical care,” says Dr. Vora. “The earlier cancer is found or any diagnosis, the more effective treatments may be. Luckily for Sheri, the cancer hadn’t spread too far.”
Sheri recovered from surgery and is continuing chemotherapy treatments under the careful watch of Dr. Vora.
Now, she’s back at work running her business, a volleyball training academy that helps young athletes grow and improve. And she splits her time between California and Idaho, where she recently purchased a new home.
If there’s one thing Sheri wants people to learn from her experience, it’s to not delay care.
“I was probably weeks from being Stage III or worse,” says Sanders. “If I had gotten diagnosed a year ago, it probably wouldn’t have spread. I’m so grateful that we caught it when we did, but I know now to always listen to my body, and seek help when I feel that something isn’t right.”