Since she was a little girl, Sheri Prentiss knew she wanted to be a doctor.
"My parents would remind me — if you want to be a doctor, you have to work harder than the other kids," says Prentiss, 45 (whose name, until her Oct. 1 marriage to Donald Prentiss, was Sheri Phillips). "So I was always looking ahead to that goal of becoming a physician for as long as I can remember."
Prentiss graduated from Northwestern University in 1989 with a bachelor of arts in psychology and premedical studies, and graduated from the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University in 1993.
"I was pregnant with my second daughter when I was doing my residency at Loyola in neurology, but I was having complications," she recalls. "So my doctor said, 'You can't be on call every third night. You need to choose. You can't work this many hours and have a successful pregnancy.'"
Prentiss switched from neurology to occupational medicine and realized the benefits of raising two young daughters with a career that provided family-friendly hours working in occupational health clinics. She earned her master's of public health at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998.
Although she was thriving in her roles as a physician and mother, in 2007, her marriage was coming to an end.
"I was going through a divorce, my mother's health was failing and I was her primary caregiver, so I was very overwhelmed," she says. "It was Oct. 1, 2008, and I was living in Homewood. I happened to be on the phone with my ex talking about the kids, and I realized I hadn't given myself my self-breast exam because I always do it on the first of the month. So I started giving myself an exam while I was on the phone and I found a mass on my breast. I'd had a mammogram in February and it was clean, and there is no history of breast cancer in the family. But the moment I felt it, I knew it was cancer."
She had 16 lymph nodes removed and a partial mastectomy. After 15 rounds of chemotherapy and 33 treatments of radiation, she is now cancer-free and travels the country encouraging other survivors while sharing her story as the national spokesperson for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure 60-mile walkathons held in cities across the U.S. to raise awareness throughout the year, not just in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (Go to http://www.the3day.org for details.) Prentiss has held the position since 2011.
The following is an edited version of our conversation:
Q: When you were going through your cancer treatments, was there ever a time when you thought you wouldn't be able to get through it?
A: Absolutely. I was about to get my fourth round of chemo, and I started getting chest pains on a Saturday and I am thinking, "I know what this is. This is a heart attack for sure." I was done. I didn't care what it meant. I didn't call 911. I went upstairs and found my life insurance policy, and I put it on my desk so it would be easy for my ex to find, got into bed, said my prayers and went to sleep expecting to just wake up in paradise and be done with this mess. I woke up so depressed that I was still here. … When I got to the ER, they did an angiogram and discovered I had over 70 percent blockage in my right coronary artery. ... So they tried to put in a stent. They tried about 22 different stents. None of them would work. The cardiologist said: "Less than 1 percent of the population in the world has this condition. So we're going to try you on some medications and see what we can do." In my head, I thought God was keeping me around because my mom hadn't passed away yet. She died three weeks later.
Q: When did things start to look up?
A: It took a while. I finished most of my treatment in July 2009, and two weeks after radiation, lymphedema (tissue swelling) had crept in on my right arm and hand. It was starting to affect (being able to) sew up lacerations (as part of) my job. ... My boss brought me into his office and he said, "Sheri, a physician who is not clinically capable is of no value to me." And I thought, "I have no value. I'd been a doctor for 16 years and now I can't perform part of my job, I don't have any value."
For four months I went through physical therapy (for the lymphedema) and during that time I struggled with depression. I thought, "All I've been is a doctor and a mom. I've never been anything else. So now where is my value?"
It finally settled with me that if I just lived, I would be able to realize my value and I would be OK. I have a motto. When I say "live," it stands for "Love myself and others. Inspire those around me. Voice my dreams and ambitions. Enjoy life." I didn't know how I was going to feed my daughters, but I said, "I'm going to live." And the moment I said that, I heard about the position for the Komen National Spokesperson.
(Although the lymphedema has disabled Prentiss from clinical practice, she continues to work as a physician consultant with clinical oversight.)
Q: Talk about the compression arm sleeve you designed.
A: I was wearing over-the-counter garments that control the swelling from the lymphedema (and keep blood flowing). ... If the infection spreads into the body, you can die — and I did not survive breast cancer to die from lymphedema! So I decided to design some sleeves because the over-the-counter garments were so boring. Now I have women come up to me who don't have lymphedema asking where I got my sleeves. (For details, go to http://www.drsherimd.com.)
Q: Do you think our mental health affects our physical health?
A: Yes. I strongly believe it was the stress and my mindset that did it for me. From childhood until I was diagnosed at 40, I put so much pressure on myself. If I would stay up late to help a friend, I would stay up until 3 in the morning so I could get the grade that I needed to get. You do that all your life, and then you get into a bad marriage, have kids, your mom gets sick — taking care of other people was what I did and as a result it defined who I was. I was trying to take care of all things for all people at all times and I honestly believe my body just said, "Enough!"
I live a very different life now. I told my kids (now 19 and 17), "I will not die for you." I said I would teach them how to be independent and take care of themselves but not to the point where I'm always solving all of their problems and draining myself.
Q: You just remarried.
A: I reconnected last October with (Donald) — a man I went to high school, college and medical school with. He is good for me and good to me. I am extremely blessed. If we had married 25 years ago, I don't know if we would still be together. I was such a different person then. The woman he fell in love with — it took all of the negative experiences and all of the positive ones to make me who I am now.
Q: What would you tell your 13-year-old self knowing everything you know now?
A: I would tell her to really master not sweating the small stuff. Pick your battles because every battle is not yours to fight. Enjoy life. Don't lose out on the fun in life trying to reach a goal.
To relax, Sheri Prentiss makes sure she has "a moment" to herself every day. "When I say a moment — a moment may be five minutes today and two hours tomorrow or a whole day three months from now. But if you can't find a time when you're driving in your car or sitting down with a bowl of soup to reflect on the fact that you are here, you are healthy, you can taste your food, you can breathe without being attached to oxygen, you can walk to your car without being attached to a walker — if you can't reflect on the most precious things, then you are too busy. Learn to take a step back and enjoy."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun