College after cancer
After beating an inoperable brain tumor as a high school senior, 19-year-old Sarah Gerlach eyes the future.
Two years before her diagnosis, former Jenks high school student Sarah Gerlach could tell something wasn’t quite right with her health. She was experiencing debilitating headaches that interfered with her ability to study and play in the marching band. She rarely had an appetite and experienced extreme fatigue.
“My headaches were so bad my junior year that I would come home from school and take three-hour naps every day,” Gerlach recalls. “I would go to the doctor all the time and get blood tests, but everything would come back normal. The doctors would just tell me I was stressed with school, and they were stress headaches.”
But Gerlach knew she was not stressed. She was trying to enjoy a normal high school life, filled with “Keeping up with the Kardashians” marathons, playing her oboe and preparing for the ACT. Her frustration built as doctor after doctor dismissed her concerns.
“Going to the doctor was a real struggle for me early on because I already knew what they were going to say,” Gerlach says. “I felt very frustrated, like nobody believed me.”
Finally, she had a breakthrough at an appointment with Dr. Amy Stauffer, a pediatric neurologist at Warren Clinic. Stauffer admitted Gerlach to expedite the process of getting her a cranial spinal MRI. For Gerlach, having Stauffer there to take action was a breath of fresh air.
“Amy made me feel so comfortable and made me feel like someone was finally listening to me,” Gerlach remembers.
When Gerlach’s MRI results came back indicating she had a cancerous brain tumor, it wasn’t the doomsday moment one might expect. In fact, Gerlach didn’t even realize she had cancer until her mother brought her to an appointment on the third floor of the Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis: oncology.
“I remember I asked my mom, ‘What does oncology mean?’” Gerlach says. “It was then that I realized, oh, my gosh, I have cancer.”
Gerlach was told she had an intercranial mixed germ cell tumor that was located on her hypothalamus — the part of the brain that controls critical functions like appetite, emotions and personality development. Because of the sensitive location, the tumor was deemed inoperable, since a botched surgery could lead to personality disorders or extreme insatiable hunger. Additionally, Gerlach had a small tumor on her pituitary gland.
Luckily, Gerlach’s spinal tap indicated that her cancer had not yet spread. She immediately began aggressive chemotherapy with outpatient and inpatient stretches at the Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis. Although the chemotherapy treatments shrunk the tumor, they did not eliminate it. When two rounds of higher-dose inpatient treatments had minimal effects, Gerlach and her family decided to look into radiation.
Gerlach faced the decision of whether to start radiation in Tulsa, or try proton therapy treatments in Oklahoma City. Proton therapy uses precise radiation, which means fewer side effects. However, driving to Oklahoma City would involve disrupting Gerlach’s schooling and day-to-day activities.
Gerlach elected to try the proton therapy with Dr. Michael Confer at ProCure in Oklahoma City — one of only 16 facilities in the country where this treatment is available. Thankfully, Gerlach’s team of doctors, family, friends and teachers made her treatment as easy as possible.
“Jenks was really awesome,” Gerlach says. “They said, ‘Let’s do whatever we can to get you graduated on time.’ So during the week, I would go to Jenks for three or four hours of school, then drive down to Oklahoma City in the afternoons for my daily proton treatment.
“I was actually happy to go to school,” she adds. “It made me feel normal and took my mind off of things. My friends acted like nothing was even wrong. I’m sure they had a million questions, but they never hounded me. My bandmates were so supportive. When I play music, everything else just goes away.”
Gerlach’s positive attitude during treatment undoubtedly helped push her forward while balancing school and treatment in two different cities.
“I just never let myself think, I’m going to die,” she says. “My parents were my rock. They didn’t physically have it, but I always say they had cancer, too. We are all survivors together.”
Another special source of support throughout her cancer journey came from Melissa DeYoung, a pediatric nurse at the Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis. Through Gerlach’s months of appointments and various treatments, she and DeYoung struck up a friendship, and they still talk and text today.
“Sarah is a great inspiration to me,” DeYoung says. “She always has such a positive outlook on life. I love how music played a big part of helping her cope throughout her treatment.”
The teen’s last proton therapy treatment was April 6, 2015, and an MRI shortly thereafter showed that the family’s prayers had been answered: The cancerous tissue was dead, and Gerlach was officially in remission. She could finally see light at the end of the tunnel.
As expected, Gerlach’s outlook on life has been shaped by her battle with cancer.
“I look at complaining so differently now,” she states. “When I hear people complaining about dumb or insignificant stuff, it gets to me. I witnessed so many horrific things during my cancer journey, seeing what other kids are going through — it makes me so grateful and blessed, every single day.”
After finishing up a year of Tulsa Community College this spring, Gerlach excitedly talks about attending the University of Arkansas in fall 2016. She’ll be living in the dorms with a new roommate, studying music education and playing the oboe.
“It’s so freeing to be going away to college now — I feel like a normal person,” Gerlach shares. “I want to be a band director one day.”
Although she battles some permanent side effects such as short-term memory loss and cortisol dependency — meaning she has to take a daily cortisol replacement — she recently enjoyed some incredible experiences, such as going on a First Descent trip, where she surfed the Outer Banks of North Carolina with other cancer survivors. Through the Make-A-Wish program, she and her family also recently visited Hawaii — the wish she made prior to going into remission.
“My Make-A-Wish trip was so amazing,” Gerlach says. “I couldn’t decide between Hawaii and going to the Super Bowl, but Hawaii was perfect. We went while it was snowing here in Tulsa, and it was 80 degrees in Hawaii.”
Now wise beyond her 19 years, she stresses the importance of seeing a specialist at the outset of any concerning symptoms.
And to anyone currently facing cancer treatment, “Stay positive and just watch a lot of ‘Kardashians’ or whatever you find fun,” Gerlach laughs. “Do whatever keeps you happy throughout the process.”