For many women, the color of cancer is not pink. For Julie Sutherland it's teal and periwinkle.
Sutherland was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach and ovarian cancer on Dec. 2o, 2016 and has been in treatment for the diseases every since then.
“Julie is a wife, mother, grandmother, and friend,” Sutherland's sister-in-law, Becki Rathfon said. “She is a Sherman resident. She went to school here. She graduated here and she raised her children here.”
Rathfon said her entire family was surprised when they found out that Sutherland was diagnosed with cancer.
“We were initially told that her ovaries were attached to her colon so it was going to be a hard surgery, but she sat down with her team at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas,” Rathfon said.
A surgery was scheduled for July.
“We knew that the surgery would be five hours and would probably take the whole time,” Rathfon said. “We got a call from the surgeon about two and a half hours into the surgery and we knew that something was not right. The doctor said that there was nothing that they could do because the cancer had spread from her stomach to her intestines, her cavity wall and was covering most of her mid section.”
The news was devastating.
“The doctors did not want to take a chance and remove anything and then have the cancer spread even more,” she said.
Sutherland started chemotherapy five days after the surgery.
“The doctor said that he wanted to hit it hard,” Rathfon said. “He decided to use three times the dose that they would normally do. That meant that because of the strength, she could only do the chemo every three or four weeks. “
Unfortunately, not far into the chemo treatment, Sutherland's doctor told her that her blood count was low, Rathfon said.
“To get her blood count back up, we had to break the rapid chemo schedule,” Rathfon said. “Julie went to a blood specialist. The blood specialist said that the high levels of chemo could have thrown her body into menopause.”
Sutherland was in constant pain.
“She was always hot,” Rathfon said. “It could be 60 degrees in a room and she would just be burning up. She said that it was uncomfortable to sit in certain positions. That was particularly hard because she was and still is working.”
Sutherland is a terminal dispatcher agent for a trucking company. Her job requires her to sit at a desk for long periods of time.
“She is the insurance policy holder for her family so she could not stop working,” Rathfon said. “She worked without fail and without complaining through this entire process.”
After being told that the chemo might have pushed her body into menopause, Sutherland went without chemo treatments for three or four months, Rathfon said. Sutherland's doctors attempted a second cancer-removal surgery on Aug 21.
“Again, it was going to be a five-hour surgery and we knew that he would need most if not all of the time,” she said. “About two hours into the surgery, we got a call. We were so worried that the situation was going to be exactly the same, but the doctor called and said that everything was going well. About an hour later, she came out of surgery.”
Alone, Sutherland's husband went to the back to get the surgery report from the doctor. While he waited, a man that Rathfon knew to be Sutherland's doctor came out and began pacing the waiting room aimlessly.
“We asked him if he was looking for Julie's family and he said yes,” Rathfon said. “He took us to the back where her husband was sitting in a position like he was praying. His hands were up and he looked like he was talking to God.”
The family was worried when it took the doctor a few moments to speak.
“He said, 'I have good news,'” Rathfon said. “Only a small part of the mass was left and it was tucked under her rib cage causing her to be in pain all of the time. They did not have to remove her colon. They said that it seemed like her ovaries were feeding the cancer so they removed them.”
Just to make sure that the cancer was gone, Sutherland's doctor scheduled her for two more rounds of chemotherapy. Sutherland was in the hospital for five days after that, Rathfon said.
“She had a great recovery while there and she went back to the hospital a week after that to have her staples removed,” she said. “She had chemo on Wednesday. And, after the first round, her doctor has decided that she will do three rounds instead of the two that they previously said because the nurses were worried about how fast she is recovering.”
To Rathfon, the recovery process has been incredible.
“She is amazing,” Rathfon became emotional while thinking about her sister-in-law. “She is the strongest person that I know. It is a miracle. We are blessed to have her. She has a positive attitude through it all.”
The public would never know that Sutherland is fighting cancer if she was not bald, Rathfon said.
“Her hair was her pride,” she said. “She had long-flowing curly natural blond hair. When it was cut, we told her it did not define who she was. She was self-conscious in public with her bald head. A wig was donated to her by someone that had fought breast cancer. It was very fitting. She began adjusting to the wig, but then she became more comfortable with her bald head. She rocked her bald head like a rock star.”
Sutherland's husband, son and brother shaved their heads too to show her that she was not dealing with this alone.
“We always live each day like it's our last, but as a family, we view life differently,” Rathfon said. “This experience has been eye opening for the entire family. We are so proud of Julie. I cannot imagine being diagnosed with something like that. She is doing extremely well.”
Another way that Sutherland's family has been showing their support, has been through fundraising to help with medical bills and other expenses she has incurred since she has not been able to work as she had in the past.
“In March, we did a march for Julie walk at Hawn Park,” Rathfon said. “People think of breast cancer, but ovarian cancer is a silent killer. Not all cancer is pink. We walked. We gave out door prizes and held a drawing. We had a message board for Julie and we wore ovarian cancer colors.”
The family also held a casino night fundraiser at the Knights of Columbus building in Denison.
“We had a poker tournament, side table games, food, and a silent auction,” Rathfon said. “Julie was able to be there and participate. We raised several thousand dollars for her.”
Sutherland has a GoFundMe page, Hope4Julie, and PayPal account to help with expenses. Sutherland's family is also hosting a Hope4Julie golf tournament fundraiser Saturday at Denison Golf and Country Club.
“Our family has really embraced each other throughout the last year,” Rathfon said. “We made a commitment to stay off the internet after the first few weeks. We spend a lot of time together as a family. We do not talk about Julie's illness during family time.”
To avoid the what-ifs, Rathfon said the family avoids searching for information about stomach and ovarian cancer.
“After we decided to stay away from the internet, the family has changed,” she said. “We have hard days. We have all stayed strong. We do not want to bring our emotional battles to her.”
And, even throughout the chemotherapy process, Rathfon said Sutherland has not had a lot of sick days.
“That is a blessing,” Rathfon said.
As another fundraiser, the family made T-shirts.
“The have priceless bar codes on them,” she said. “They say, finding a cure for ovarian cancer is priceless. All of us females need to be checked regularly. It's no telling how long she had been dealing with the cancer and not known about it.”
At each fundraising event, Rathfon said that she has been encouraging women to make sure they see their gynecologist regularly.
“Julie's children and grandchildren will be check because it is a silent creeper,” she said. “Every individual is different and every fight is different. This has been a life changing experience for the entire family. There is no age discrimination, ethnic discrimination, no socioeconomic discrimination. Anyone can get this.”
As for Sutherland, Rathfon said, that she has a lot of hope.
“I know she is looking forward to moving on,” she said. “For all women just speak with your doctor and speak with them early. It's better to be proactive than reactive.”