Let's talk about colon cancer — The Cherry Sauers storyPart I of the Cancer Awareness Series
Cherry Sauers, of Waynesville, was many things.
She was highly creative — she painted, practiced calligraphy and made jewelry, wind chimes and small mementoes for those she cared about. She held “fairy tea parties” for her children and grandchildren using special china dishes and donning colorful costumes and whimsical hats.
She was a gardener with a vast and seemingly unending knowledge of plant life.
She was a wife, a mother and a grandmother.
But near the end of her life, she was known as a battle-hardened fighter.
“What an interesting, creative, determined woman … she would fight for anything for her family, herself, her husband,” said Donna Koger, Sauers’s best friend and caretaker. “She was just a strong will.”
“She’s the epitome of strength,” said Nicole Blazer, Sauers’s daughter.
Sauers had fought melanoma 27 years prior and had been in remission for 15 years when she learned in 2008 that she had metastatic melanoma of the lymph node system. Soon after, her husband, Tom Sauers, was formally diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease after struggling with seizures. And as if that weren’t enough, two months later, Sauers learned after a colonoscopy that she had colon cancer.
“She didn’t want chemo,” said Koger. “She wanted quality of life over quantity.”
For two years, Sauers sought treatment through natural means, using a rigorous herbal regiment that she was unable to remain faithful to.
“My mom didn’t want to lean on my sisters and me,” said Blazer. “So she began to lean on Donna.”
“We became best friends,” said Koger.
In 2010, she was rushed to the emergency room for excessive bleeding and was told that her colon cancer had progressed to Stage 4.
“When she bled out, they told her ‘You have three weeks unless you do chemo now,’” said Blazer. “She went on it immediately.”
Sauers started chemotherapy at Mission Hospital and after a change to her insurance, continued her treatment at Harris Regional in Sylva. She endured chemotherapy for the next three years.
During that time, Sauers and Koger traveled and enjoyed life together. They went to the Lavender Festival, the Renaissance Fair in Charlotte, the Land of Oz in Boone and New Orleans.
“Cherry wanted to live,” said Koger. “She had this drive — ‘I’m gonna live to 90!’”
Sauers also continued to care for Tom while battling her own cancer. Eventually, the Parkinson’s progressed to such a degree that the family had to put him in the care of the VA nursing home in Asheville.
And she learned as much as she could about her disease.
“She educated herself on everything single tiny thing related to her treatments,” said Koger. “She looked it up, had the nurses look it up; she could verbalize on all of it — medications, side effects.”
Despite the horrendous side effects of the chemo, Sauers remained positive.
“You could never be the realist and say ‘Snap out of it, woman, believe this is what’s gonna happen,’” said Blazer. “You couldn’t do that. She wouldn’t have listened. She wanted to be positive and she wanted you to be on her side and be positive with her.”
In the end, the colon cancer spread to her lungs, liver, hipbone and spleen. And after trying every form of chemotherapy available, she became chemically resistant.
She spent the last weeks of her life at Mission Hospital surrounded by her family and friends.
“She felt her body had betrayed her,” said Koger. “Her body just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Sauers' last regret was that she would not be able to watch her youngest grandson, Kaleb, grow up.
She passed away Dec. 2, 2013 at the age of 61.
“After such a long time with her, it was so much of a relief for her to be out of pain,” said Koger. “The nurses said that if she hadn’t gone when she did, the pain would have been so bad they wouldn’t have been able to treat it effectively.”
“This is why people say quality over quantity,” said Blazer.
“I don’t wish this on anyone,” said Koger. “It was very hard for her.”
In 2014, the American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 96,830 new cases of colon cancer in the United States.
“Think hard and long when you’re first diagnosed about what you need to do,” said Koger. “I would rather have seen her do something earlier because by the time they started with the chemo it was too late.”
The MD Anderson Cancer Center recommends that those with a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, daughter or son) who has been diagnosed with colon cancer should get a colonoscopy every five years, beginning at age 40 if the family member was 50 or older when diagnosed. With family members diagnosed at a younger age, subtract 10 years from the age of diagnosis and begin testing at that age. For example, if the family member was diagnosed at age 42, testing should begin at age 32.
Despite her age, Blazer, who is currently 39, will begin having regular screenings this year.
“I’m not scared of the procedure,” said Blazer. “I’m scared of the findings. I’m scared to death of that day.”
Koger and Blazer hope that Sauers' story will make people more aware about colon cancer and their treatment options. And while they miss her greatly, they continue to celebrate her life.
“She’s on her next adventure,” said Koger.