Sarah Poinsett was 26 years old, working full time in a daycare, raising her six-year-old, Kayla, on her own, and going to Mercer full time to study nursing when she was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer.
Poinsett says she had been sick for years, but hadn’t had a diagnosis that seemed to fit. She was used to the constant stomach pains, vomiting, and weight loss. She’d managed to find a way to keep going with work, parenting and studies despite it.
Poinsett found her primary support coming from her own young daughter.
“I still remember Kayla coming over to me and rubbing my head and saying, “Its ok Mommy,” it was the sweetest thing,” Poinsett told The VOICE.
As Poinsett went to doctors multiple tests were done though no diagnosis seemed to stick.
According to Poinsett’s mother, Sally Ruth of Hamilton Township, she thought her daughter may have had the flu or a similar illness but it was hard to tell because Poinsett would feel horrible and still get up and do what she needed to for the day. Ruth says she figured if it were anything more serious the doctors would have discovered it.
“I thought I was nuts, [my family and the doctors] made me feel like I was exaggerating and making it up,” said Poinsett, “I started asking myself ‘am I that stressed out that I’m making myself sick?’”
When Poinsett’s symptoms stubbornly continued Ruth ultimately became more and more worried. She says her grandfather had had colon cancer and she began to think his symptoms seemed similar to her daughters.
Poinsett was finally able to find the money to get a colonoscopy but the doctors somehow missed a massive tumor and sent her home with more questions than answers.
Angry, frustrated and still feeling horrible Poinsett found support from her 25 year old boyfriend, Mike Bernhardt, who was enrolled in the police academy. He helped get her to appointments and tried to keep up her spirits.
“There were times when she didn’t want to move or get out of bed but was still doing all her school work and getting a 4.0 in all of her classes. It shows her strength,” said Bernhardt.
It wasn’t until October 11, 2013 that doctors at Capital Health Medical Center-Hopewell found a tumor on the left side of Poinsett’s colon while performing a second colonoscopy. According to Poinsett, the tumor was so large the doctors had a hard time getting around it during the procedure.
She was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer, meaning that the cancer had spread to nearby lymph nodes, but not yet to other parts of her body.
“When they [the doctors] told me it was cancer and this was legitimately going on, I actually felt relieved,” said Poinsett.
“It was like thank God I’m not nuts and there was a reason behind me being sick. I was really beginning to think I was crazy.”
Her mother was taken aback. “It’s almost like you can’t believe that that’s what you’ve just heard,” said Ruth.
Breaking the news to Kayla was harder.
“I told her I had cancer, and she knew I was sick, but she didn’t really know what cancer meant,” Poinsett says.
“The thought of me leaving [my child] and hurting her was enough for me to do what I had to do. It wasn’t an option for me not to get through it,” Poinsett says.
On October 12, 2013 Poinsett was taken into surgery at the same hospital where she was diagnosed with cancer, and the doctors removed a large portion of her intestine, along with 23 lymph nodes, of which six were cancerous. The entire procedure took about five hours.
“The removal of my intestine has had long-term effects. I have to carefully monitor my diet and eat healthy, cutting out fun stuff like pizza,” Poinsett says.
She began chemotherapy treatments this November of 2012, about a month after her surgery, and finished six months later.
During this time Poinsett was still enrolled at Mercer but had to drop her classes due to her illness. Though most of her teachers were helpful, she was stunned to receive a letter from the college stating she had been put on academic probation after withdrawing from so many classes.
“I had cancer, not a cold,” said Poinsett, indicating her frustration.
After presenting a letter from her doctor, Poinsett was ultimately able to get the probation lifted. She was back at Mercer the following semester.
Her goal now is to get her nursing degree and bachelors at TCNJ where she hopes to one day practice oncology and then go on to teach nursing.
Poinsett’s daily routine of work, school, and taking care of her daughter is back to normal. Currently in remission Poinsett says it will take about five years before she is considered cancer free, but at this point she feels better then ever.
“You don’t know how much being sick weighs you down until its over. I feel great and have more energy than I have in a long time, ” she says.