This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Sherry Pollex, the longtime partner of Martin Truex Jr. who turns 40 years old on Friday — a birthday she wasn’t sure she would ever reach during a fierce battle with cancer.
Following you on social media after everything you have been through with your illness, I feel like you’re living life to the fullest and maximizing each day more than anybody that I know. So I want to talk to you and see if you can offer some tips for other people.
Thank you for that, first of all, that you think of me that way. That means a lot to me.
I do feel like I’m a really positive person and I try to wake up every day and live life to the fullest. I felt like I did that before I got diagnosed with cancer, but now that I live the way I do after cancer, I don’t know if I was fully living that way with that much joy and gratitude.
So I feel like now life after cancer is mentally and physically exhausting at times, but I try to wake up every day and see the positive in everything that I do. Even on the days I don’t feel good, I always think, “This too shall pass. Tomorrow is a new day and I’m going to feel better tomorrow.” Or “Something amazing could happen tomorrow and I’ll meet somebody that I can inspire or bring a smile to their face.”
Even just like if I’m at Target or I’m at the grocery store, it’s amazing what you can do when you’re at a checkout line and the person checking you out seems like they’re having a really bad day or they have a bad attitude. If you just smile at them or tell them they’re pretty or tell them that what they’re wearing is beautiful. It can be such a small compliment, but it can completely change somebody’s life.
I wake up every day and just have so much gratitude and joy for this life that I’m living, even though I have a chronic illness. And it’s so hard. People ask me all the time: “I don’t get it. How do you stay so positive and how are you happy all the time when you have Stage 3C ovarian cancer?” And I wake up every day and just think this life is amazing.
If you look around you, there’s so much positivity and there’s so much beauty in this earth. The people who want to make a difference and want to inspire each other — there is a lot of us if you look for us.
The first thing that I do when I wake up in the morning, first of all, is I pray, which I think kind of sets the intentions for my day. I thanked God for the warm bed that I slept in this morning, I thanked him for this amazing trip that I had with my girlfriends for my upcoming 40th birthday. I try to say at least three to five things that I’m grateful for. Like I do like a little gratitude moment: I just say what I’m grateful for and then I do a big stretch and I get out of bed and start my day. And I think that that’s such a great way to start your day.
So many people, the first thing they do (after waking up) is they get on their phone or they get news alerts on their iPhone, right? Or they get on Twitter or they get on Facebook or they get on Instagram, and there’s so much negativity on them. There’s so many great things about social media, but there’s a lot of negativity, too. There’s so much negativity on those outlets and for me to start my day like that, I’m not setting a good intention for the rest of my day, right? If I’ve already looked at that, I’ve already started my brain thinking that way and I don’t want to do that.
So I think if you start your day with thinking about the things that you’re joyful for, the things that bring you joy and you think about gratitude and all the things that you’re thankful for, you know then that kind of sets the tone for everything in your life and it makes every day seem that much better. It does for me, anyway.
So is it literally like you wake up and you force yourself to not look at your phone? You won’t pick up your phone?
Well I have this new rule — and I actually learned this from not only my counselor, but just some other holistic healers that I listen to and other spiritual leaders that I listen to. I listen to a lot of podcasts, too, and I learned that for the first two hours that you’re awake, you shouldn’t look at your phone.
I realize for everybody that’s not possible — people that have kids and have to work and have to go right into their day. But I wake up fairly early for me, so I make it a rule that for two hours from the time that I wake up on most days — not every day, it’s not possible every day because some days you have commitments and you have things you have to do and you think of something that you should have texted somebody last night, so you do it really quick. So some days it’s not possible, but I try to at least three days a week not look at my phone for the first two hours that I’m up.
I read my Bible. I write in a gratitude journal. I have a cup of tea and I sit out on the back porch and look at the lake and think about how beautiful the area that we live in is. I think about what I’m going to do that day if there’s an opportunity to inspire somebody with my story or my disease. I write a lot of blogs on SherryStrong.org, so I write that from my phone.
If I have to write on my phone, I try to stay away from social media. I try to just use it for whatever I’m using it for in that moment. Like for instance, my Bible app is on my phone, so sometimes I’m on it because my Bible app is on there. But I’m not looking at negative news outlets and I think that’s so important, just to not start your day with negativity.
So how do you avoid getting sucked into the negativity of the world once you do start looking at it? And not just on social media, but in life you’ll come across people who are negative. How do you try to keep the positive spirit going throughout the day?
Well for one, I think if you have negative people in your life like that, you shouldn’t be friends with them. That was one of the first things I did after I was diagnosed: All the people in my life who are what I call Debbie Downers, who just were bringing me down in my life, I just got rid of them. I’m not around them anymore.
I’m not mean or ungrateful for the people who have helped my through my life or have done things for me, I just don’t have friendships with those people. I don’t choose to spend my time with them.
So I think it’s all about choices, right? We wake up every day and we have a choice on how we want to live our life that day. Do we want to live with joy and gratitude, or do we want to be negative pessimists? I choose to wake up every day and I’m like, “Yeah, I have this disease and it sucks.” Nobody wants to have cancer and nobody wants to take chemo every day. But I always think to myself there’s so many people that have it so much worse than I do. I think about all the people that have Stage 4 pancreatic cancer or have cancers that are way worse than I do and can’t get out of bed in the morning and can’t even go to work and can’t function and can’t get up and make breakfast. And I think about those people and I pray for them and then I think about how lucky I am that I can do those things.
So I think if you just focus on what you can do and what you can’t do, it makes such a huge difference. Yeah there’s some things that I can’t do that I could do in my pre-cancer life. But it’s OK; the rest of my life is not going to be perfect.
Nobody’s life is full of sunshine and rainbows. That’s probably my favorite thing to tell people. No one’s life is perfect. No matter what you see on social media, nobody’s life is perfect. We have this idea of what our life should be like, with marriage and kids and everything is perfect and we live in this house with a white picket fence, but that’s not everyone’s reality. And it’s really no one’s reality, because everybody that even tells you they have that reality usually doesn’t have it.
So I always think to myself we all have this path we’ve gone down in our lives and we make a choice when we go down that path to be around negative people and to let negative things in life affect us — or we don’t. And if I come across something on Twitter or Instagram that’s negative, usually I scroll right by. I don’t read it. I don’t pay a ton of attention to it.
Do I get mad and angry like everybody else? Yeah, of course I do. If you follow me on social media, you can see that I’m a firecracker. I have a sassy attitude and I do get upset about things. But I’ve learned to just take deep breaths and let those things go by quicker than I used to. I have my days where I’m not happy about stuff and there is negativity around me, but I’ve just found a different way to cope with it.
It’s interesting that you mentioned a couple times that you sort of seek a chance to inspire someone. I guess in my daily life it’s not something that crosses my mind where like I’m thinking, “Oh, I could actually improve this person’s day.” Which I should, because anybody can improve somebody’s day — you don’t need to have a license to do it or something like that.
Yeah, and you just hit the nail on the head, right? We all have different ways we inspire people. You don’t have to be a cancer patient to inspire somebody. You don’t have to have gone through some kind of tragedy or great trauma in your life to inspire someone. We all have our gifts that God has given us and we all have something we can use to inspire others.
I tell Martin all the time, “Your gift is that you are able to have this amazing talent to be a race car driver and you can use that platform to be a role model to other children and kids that look up to you and want to be you one day.” Or, “Use it to inspire kids that are battling an illness or whatever it might be.” There’s so many things that we can do.
And I think when you’ve gone through something like I’ve been through and then you come out the other side and you’re like, “Oh wow, I’m still here. I’m still alive and I still have this opportunity to live this amazing life even though I’m probably going to fight this disease forever until it kills me.” How can I use that? Like what is God trying to teach me? What lesson am I learning?
To me, it was like this huge awakening, like this spiritual awakening. Like God is trying to teach me something; what is this path that he’s put me on and how can I use it to do good in this world so that when I leave here I leave behind this legacy of wanting to help others and bring positivity and sunlight and happiness to other people?
So that’s really what I concentrate on with Sherry Strong and with our (Martin Truex Jr.) Foundation. Every time we go to the hospital or every time I talk to another cancer patient, sitting down with them and holding their hand and being like, “Yeah, I know it’s really tough right now and I know it sucks. But there’s going to come a day where you are going to feel better and this too shall pass.” That was my favorite thing to say to myself as I was going through my really rough chemo: “This too shall pass.” There’s going to come a day where I’m going to be sitting here like I am with you today and the sun is going to be shining and I’m going to feel great and I’m going to be like, “Oh my gosh, God gave me a second chance at life. Now what am I gonna do with it?” And for me that’s, “OK, how can I inspire more people and give more people with cancer hope?”
Because that’s my passion, right? We’re all gifted at something and we all have this path that we’re on, and for me it was I just wanted to help other people make it through this disease and teach them about integrated medicine and all the things that I used to help me feel better and the mindful practices that I’ve used to help me get through it. It’s just been amazing and I feel so lucky to be here.
Some days you’re tired and have to rally yourself. Some people drink coffee or tea; what do you take? Do you have, like…pills or something…?
Are you asking me if I like have a magic happy pill? (Laughs)
No, like some holistic something. I don’t know.
So I think I kind of know what you’re asking me. I do take a lot of supplements and a lot of vitamins, which I think helps me feel good. When we feel good as humans naturally, our mind feels good and our body feels good.
I’m a true believer in you are what you eat, you are what you live, you are who you say you are, right? So like for me, that’s practicing mindful connections every day. I do yoga a lot and I do a lot of meditation and I’ll even repeat little mantras in my mind, like, “I am healthy. I am strong,” because like the mind-body connection is huge to me.
If my mind feels good, I can teach my body how to feel good even though I’m battling this disease. So I do a lot of like green tea and dandelion tea and I make this essiac tea, which is like this cancer-fighting tea. I do a lot of things that boost my immune system, and I think those things all help my body stay strong so that I can fight my disease but also to keep my mind healthy so that I can be in the right state of mind to inspire other people and bring them joy and happiness and do things for myself, if that makes sense.
So I don’t think there’s like this magic pill that you take every day. CBD oil is huge right now and that’s proven to lessen people’s pain and anxiety and inflammation and so yeah, that’s sort of like a happy pill I guess if you wanted to say it that way. I mean there’s other things that you can do, but for me, those are the things that work for me. I’m not speaking for everybody, I’m just more speaking about what I do for myself and those things kind of set my intentions for the whole day after I do yoga and meditation and I take my supplements and I make a green smoothie. That’s kind of how I start my day and if I feel good, that kind of sets my tone for the whole day.
Are you on some sort of a diet where you’re strict about stuff, or do you just try to make healthy choices with what you put in your body?
Oh no, I’m on a really strict diet. Like a crazy strict diet. I eat like only really healthy foods. It’s crazy. A lot of it is on SherryStrong.org, but that’s probably the number one question I get asked from people on social media, is, “What do you eat every day?”
This morning, I made a green smoothie with a lot of fruits and vegetables in it and some mushroom powder and some collagen and some protein powder. Usually for lunch I have a big salad and then for dinner I have salmon and vegetables. So that’s like an average day. That’s not every day because I eat a lot of variety and stuff, but I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables mostly.
But I think that that’s huge because like we just talked about, you are what you eat. It kind of sets the tone. If you eat crappy food all the time and you eat junk food all the time and you eat a lot of refined sugar and you drink a lot of soda and all these things, then you don’t feel good, you know? And then when you don’t feel good, how can you be a source of happiness and joy for other people? Because you’re miserable with yourself and how you feel.
Some people can’t help it — they’re battling a terrible illness, so it doesn’t matter how they eat. They still don’t feel good you know? But if you have the opportunity to make that change, then what an incredible change that you can make.
Everybody has stuff that goes on in their life in varying degrees and it’s tempting to feel sorry for yourself. Why don’t you feel sorry for yourself? Or at least you don’t come across that way.
Yeah, so I had that in the beginning when I first was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Most people who have followed me on social media know that I really wanted to be a mom, and in the beginning, about three months before I was diagnosed, I was trying to get pregnant. I went to the doctor because I was like, “Oh my stomach hurts, I’m a little bit bloated,” I thought “Maybe I am pregnant.”
And then they told me I had Stage 3C ovarian cancer and I was going to be in surgery five days later and I was going to have a radical hysterectomy and I would never have kids.
I had that moment when I got home, that “Why me?” moment. I threw myself on the floor, like fully blown like temper tantrum fit like a four-year-old would do. And Martin just stood there and watched me and just cried and was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help you, I don’t know what to do with you,” because he was so sad, too and he was so devastated that I was so sick.
We didn’t realize how sick I was until we saw the scan and all the tumors in my body — which there was like 40 to 50 tumors in my body.
So I think I had that in the beginning, that, “Why me?” And then I remember talking to a friend of mine that was getting chemotherapy and you might know him. His name was Steve Byrnes. He was sitting next to this 97-year-old lady on his right who was getting chemotherapy for breast cancer or something. And he was sitting next to a 19-year-old on his left who had testicular cancer. And he said, “Sher, I walked in and I sat down to get my chemo, and I was feeling sorry myself and I was thinking that, ‘Why me? Why am I here? Why can’t I live a normal life?’ And I looked next to me at this 97-year-old lady that was at the end of her life fighting and I looked to my left at this guy that was 19 and just starting his life and was fighting and I thought, ‘Why not me? What makes me any different? What makes me more special than them? What makes my life, my age, color of my skin, my social status, whatever it might be that makes you different — what makes me different from them?’”
And we talked about that a lot, Steve and I. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. No disease discriminates. It doesn’t matter what you’re going through in your life; we’re all going to experience some type of suffering or tragedy in our life, right? So how do you get past that point where you’re just like, at one point in my life I’m going to have something bad that’s going to happen and then I’ll come to a place where I’m OK with it?
It’s different for everybody, but for me it was just like, “I’m around these children every day that fight cancer and they’re five years old and three years old. They haven’t even had a chance to live their life yet.” And then I started to feel lucky that I was 35 when I was diagnosed and that I had lived 35 years of my life.
I was like, “Wow, look at all the amazing trips I’ve gone on, look at all the amazing things that I’ve done. How lucky am I that I have made it this far and that I’m not five or 15 or 19 fighting this terrible illness and might not ever have the chance to get married or have kids or do all the things you want to do in life?”
For me it was spending time with friends and family, traveling, inspiring people. Yeah, I wanted to be a mom, but I couldn’t be anymore. So it was like, “OK, do I want to adopt now? Do I just want to take care of these babies at the hospital and let them be my kids?”
And I haven’t felt sorry for myself a day since. I really haven’t. I haven’t had one day when I woke up and thought, “Why me?” Even in my worst, darkest days like when I shaved my head, when I was in the worst of my chemotherapy, when I had my recurrence, when they told me I had to go on oral chemo — I mean I’ve on chemo for four out of the last five years. I’ve never had one day where I was like, “Why me?”
I just thought, “I’m gonna get through this and I’m gonna live every day and I’m going to live it to the best of my ability. I’m going to be a happy person while I’m living it and whatever happens happens. God’s blessed me with this much time on this earth, if he takes me now, then whatever I’ve done and whatever I’ve blessed to do, then let that be my legacy here.”
If you could just inject the average person with some bit of knowledge that you just wish people could realize about life in general, what would it be?
As a cancer patient, that’s such an interesting question because there’s so many things, right? You wake up and you’re like, “Why can’t people see that butterfly that just flew by was amazing? That God made that butterfly and she’s so beautiful?”
The color in the sky is bluer and the grass is greener. It’s so hard to explain to people that you have to go through what I’ve been through to experience that, and I hate that. I wish everybody could just experience that and not have to go through tragedy to feel that. Because for me, everything about my life has been more vibrant and colorful and amazing and joyful. And I hate that it took cancer for me to see that, to see how amazing that all is.
But the one thing that I think every day when I wake up that I’m like, “Why can’t people just see this?” would be like when you think that you have a problem and you think it’s a really big problem, (it’s not). Like it could be sitting in traffic, right? Martin gets so frustrated when he’s sitting in traffic on I-77 and he starts to get all upset about it and I’m like, “Why can’t you just see right now that this problem is so small? Why can’t you see that there’s so much more out there, there are so many bigger problems and that there’s somebody right now who is praying for your problem?”
My mom tells me every night when you say your prayers, remember that there’s somebody across the world that’s wishing they could trade prayers with you — because they’re wishing they could pray for what you’re praying for. And it’s such a true statement.
It’s not just Martin, it’s not just me, it’s everybody. Every single person that wakes up and goes throughout their day is going to encounter some obstacle or some problem that they go through, and every time they hit that bump in the road, instead of thinking, “Gosh, this is a mountain I can’t climb,” instead of complaining about it…why don’t we offer a solution, or why don’t we talk about the positive sides of it?
And I realize that that’s not always going to happen. Like I was upset with the way qualifying was a couple weeks ago, too. Like I get it, we’re all going to have those moments. Nothing can be perfect all the time.
But we can choose how we react to those moments and we can choose what our attitude is to those moments and we also can make choices to say, “You know what, this is a really small problem in my life and this too is going to pass.”
Then when something big comes along, it’s like you’re ready for it, and then you realize all those little problems were just getting you ready for that really big one. Those things are just really small in the grand scheme of things.
So I think that’s probably my biggest (thing). I’ll be out to lunch with girlfriends and they’ll be talking about pickup at school and how they waited in line for so long and the kids didn’t want to go to school or something happened at school and bullied the other kid or something happened. And I’m like, “I wish those were my problems. I wish my kid was at school when somebody was mean to her today and I can teach her that that’s not OK and to kill people with kindness every day. I wish I had a little girl like that.” You know?
Like I wish I had a little girl that was healthy and awesome or a little boy and I could inspire her to be this amazing person to other people one day. But I’m never going to have that opportunity. So I think it’s all about perspective, right? We make a choice every day when we encounter a problem and putting it in perspective of what’s really going on in our life and people’s lives around us and the minute you do that and you have compassion for somebody else, it changes everything. It’s pretty incredible.