'If cancer can get him, it can get anybody'

by Sonja J. Keith
Mike Kemp photos

Forty-one-year-old Tony Sherrod seemed like the picture of perfect health. An athlete who watched what he ate, he was the least likely person to have colon cancer. Let alone die from it.

His wife, Jennifer, is still in disbelief four years after his death but learned through her husband’s illness that “early screening and detection is key,” and “you have to advocate for yourself.” She also discovered that caught in Stage 1, colon cancer has a 95 percent survival rate. At Stage 4, it is 3 percent because it typically has left the colon and spread to other areas.

“It totally flips on you,” she said. “He was not a person who should’ve had cancer. He was a healthy guy.”

Jennifer grew up in Conway, and Tony was a longtime North Little Rock resident. The two met while attending the University of Central Arkansas, fell in love and dated for a year and a half before they tied the knot. They had been married 18 years at the time of his death and had three children: Alex, 17; Mississippi, 15; and Griffin, 7.

Tony was an avid athlete, running in road races, bicycling, swimming and participating in Iron Man triathlons. “He was constantly working out,” his wife said. “He was the picture of health and at the top of his game. There is no rhyme or reason for it.”

Jennifer said Tony was busy with work, his family and physical activities. Up until his illness, he was one of only 35 individuals who had participated in every Little Rock Marathon since its inception. “He was on overdrive all the time with the races he did,” she said. “It wasn’t anything for him to run 26 miles in a day.”

Not only did he enjoy physical activities, he encouraged others to be active and healthy. In fact, during races, Tony would oftentimes slow his own pace to stay with another runner who might be struggling to finish. “That’s who he was.”

Looking back on his athletic experiences, which included five Iron Man triathlons, Jennifer remembered Tony running in 100-degree weather in Texas and eight hours of rainy conditions in Oklahoma. It might sound crazy, but Tony “loved it.” She also wonders, “How can you do a race like that and have Stage 4 colon cancer?”

Tony’s health problems surfaced in February 2010. Over a two-week period, he had two bouts of extreme pain in his abdomen. Initially, Tony thought he had eaten something that didn’t agree with him. Tests were inconclusive, but doctors suspected he had a kink in his colon.

When doctors were unable to do a colonoscopy, surgery was scheduled for the next day. “I didn’t even think cancer,” Jennifer said. “It never, ever entered my mind.”

The procedure was expected to last about an hour and half. It took four. Jennifer remembers the surgeon coming out of the operating room to deliver the news to a waiting room full of family and friends.

“He came out and said, ‘I think it’s cancer.’”

Tony was diagnosed April 1. He died Aug. 24.

Over the months, Tony’s weight dropped from 210 pounds to 160. Jennifer said Tony vomited every day until he died. “It destroyed him in four and a half months.”

Tony was scheduled for 12 rounds of chemotherapy, but he was only able to complete five. Jennifer feels that the treatments were keeping the cancer at bay, but by the end of July his body could not tolerate the harsh chemicals anymore. “The only way to battle it is to find it early.”

Despite his weakened condition, one thing did not change — Tony’s sense of humor. He was also determined to beat cancer. “I was still thinking this isn’t going to get him,” Jennifer said. “Tony said, ‘I’m going to get through this.’ We never talked about him dying.”

Jennifer said the months that followed were a roller coaster. While she cared for her husband, it was difficult to realize there wasn’t anything she could do to keep cancer from taking him away.

The family’s life turned upside down. “It changed everything.” Where it wasn’t unusual for Tony to run 26 miles in one day, the 50 steps outside his home to a stop sign became a struggle.

Jennifer remembers that Tony did not close his eyes for the last 13 days of his life, despite her begging him to sleep. “In my opinion, I think he thought he wouldn’t wake up.”

Tony fought the cancer as long as he could, according to Jennifer. “He never, ever gave up,” she said, adding that if there had been any way possible, her husband had the determination to find a way to cure himself. “It took him out quickly . . . It was just too fast. He was well. He was sick, and it was over.”

The couple’s son, Griffin, turned 4 the day after his dad’s funeral.

During his illness and after his death, Jennifer had to “learn how to do everything” to care for her family. “It’s just hard by yourself. We did everything together. He was my best friend.”

“It’s changed our lives forever.”

After his death, organizers honored Tony and his involvement in the Soaring Wings Half Marathon by dedicating the 2010 event in his memory. Jennifer and their children were on hand that day to pass out the medals to participants.

It has been four years since he passed away. “In some ways, it feels like it just happened,” she said. “As time goes on, I don’t cry myself to sleep anymore, but every day I cry. Nobody’s life is perfect, but ours was really close . . . Every day is hard. Every day is just tough.”

When faced with life’s decisions, Jennifer finds herself asking, “What would Tony do?” While it would be natural to want to give up, her focus is on the couple’s children. “I have to take care of these kids. He would’ve wanted us to go on.”

Jennifer had Tony’s racing shirts made into a quilt for their daughter. It hangs in their home.

While it is still difficult to discuss his death, Jennifer is willing to put that aside if it means that hearing Tony’s story can help others. “He would want this to help someone else,” she said.

Jennifer pointed out that age 50 is the recommended time to seek a colonoscopy, earlier if there is a family history. “Tony was 10 years younger than that,” she said, adding that he had no family history of colon cancer. She is certain if he would’ve suspected a problem, he would’ve said something to her and sought help.

Since Tony’s death, at least one acquaintance has told Jennifer because of what happened to Tony, he went to get checked. His was caught at Stage 2.

“I hope this helps out at least one person,” Jennifer said. “If you’re having trouble, you need to look more into that. That’s what Tony would’ve wanted.”

It is particularly important for athletes to be aware of cancer symptoms and get checked out as soon as they suspect a problem. She said it’s a misconception that someone who exercises and eats right won’t get cancer.

“Yes, you can, and you can die from it. I learned the hard way,” she said. “If it can get him, it can get anybody.”