A fiercely devoted wife, mother, grandmother and family therapist, Sarah earned her reputation as a woman who would sacrifice for others; a trusted confidante that people just naturally gravitate to. Some people have the gift of an inner light and positive spirit that lift up everyone around them…that is the essence of Sarah Russell.
All these qualities would serve Sarah well when in 2003 she received the diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a cancer that is caused by abnormal plasma cells in the blood and comprises one percent of all cancers. “It felt as though I had jumped off a cliff and was falling in slow motion, not knowing where I was going to land. Too many people depended on me; my family, my patients…I did not have time for cancer," Sarah recalls.
Once the initial shock and frustration passed, Sarah quickly set about the business of learning about her disease and focusing on the treatment plan her UNC Lineberger team recommended for her. Enduring pain, infections, weight loss, debilitating side effects from treatments and depression, Sarah learned that it was okay to ask for help.
During her darkest moments, so many people rallied by her side supporting and comforting her through the rough spots. Husband Dr. Joseph Russell, a retired nephrologist, became Sarah’s best advocate as he accompanied her to Chapel Hill for every visit. Sarah says with a smile, “Joe is my champion; he has fought this disease with me. He has proven that when he vowed to love me in sickness and health, he meant it.”
She sees a major push going into research for multiple myeloma and other blood cancers and feels confident that there will be cures around the corner. “I feel hopeful when I speak with doctors and researchers who have dedicated their lives to prolonging mine. For now, I have come to accept my cancer. This is my life. The new normal."
Determined to give back, Sarah serves as a member of the Patient and Family Advisory Board for the North Carolina Cancer Hospital. “My passion," she says, “is to help the patients and their caregivers who come after me, reassure them that they are in a good place, and do what I can to help faculty and staff get the tools they need to fight the fight – and win – for all of us."
Sarah and Joe are particularly interested in issues faced by caregivers. “Cancer affects families, not just the patient,” she says. “We’d like to see more resources available for caregivers so they also feel supported and know about programs at UNC that can help them and their families. We want patients and families to have information and know what to expect."
Sarah’s advice to patients and caregivers is to ask others for help: “The resources are there and you don’t have to go through this journey alone." She also recognizes there is so much more to her as a person than a cancer diagnosis. “I have a full life for which I’m incredibly grateful. Cancer is just one part of my life. My diagnosis is not the essence of who I am."