Four years after her diagnosis with uveal melanoma, our friend Cheryl Gehrer passed away on Tuesday, April 14, 2015 at her home in O’Fallon, IL. She was 53.
We first met Cheryl in November of 2012 when she agreed to tell us the story of her diagnosis and what was ahead for her. We couldn’t help but laugh and smile during the conversation—Cheryl was so positive, good-natured and determined that uveal melanoma would not hold her back; in fact, it propelled her forward. One of the most memorable things she told us was that her diagnosis had been a “blessing” of sorts. Knowing that she was likely to face tough times ahead, she prioritized what was truly important to her, embracing family and friends and having a lot of fun along the way.
For Cheryl Gehrer, the journey to Dr. J. William Harbour’s office in April 2011 had been a long one. In fact, it started a few months earlier when her vision slowly began fading. Contacts and reading glasses could not counteract the spots, dots, and floaters. Cheryl was in and out of doctors’ offices, first told she had an infection and eventually diagnosed with cataracts.
Cheryl was eager to get back to her family and beloved job of running a local women’s gym. But before surgery, she learned that this wasn’t going to be simple—she didn’t have cataracts, she had a tumor.
After yet another doctor’s appointment, Cheryl was referred to Dr. William Harbour, an ocular oncologist and clinical researcher who was then at Washington University in St. Louis, not far from her home in southern Illinois.
“I had all kinds of tests…an ultrasound, a liver enzyme test, a bunch of photos taken of the inside of my eye, and a CT and MRI scan. This went on for eight or nine hours. Then Dr. Harbour said my tumor was huge, and that radiation was not an option. My eye had to come out and the surgery had to be done soon.” Cheryl was devastated.
Dr. Harbour explained there was a test that could tell Cheryl her risk of metastasis, that is, the odds that her cancer would spread. Like many others, she said yes. She wanted to know her tumor type.
“I was sure it was coming back as Class 1,” with a low risk of spreading. “I just wanted that confirmation.” But when Dr. Harbour called with the results, Cheryl learned her tumor was Class 2, with a 72% chance of metastasizing to her liver within five years.
“I shut down, I couldn’t speak. I was totally down…It took me about four to five months to say ‘stop it.’ I got back to work and back to my normal life. Since then, my life has taken a total turn. I’ve been spending more time with my family—my husband, my kids, my grandson, even my extended family. It has brought us all closer together…”
Cheryl’s Class 2 status required her to go for either an MRI or liver function test every three months. Twenty months after her diagnosis, the cancer was found in her liver. Cheryl took the news head on with the same positive spirit she brought to her diagnosis and Class 2 status. She shut down her women’s gym, got into treatment, and enrolled in the St. Louis Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon to fundraise for CURE OM. Just six weeks before the marathon, Cheryl learned the cancer had spread to her abdomen. Despite the news (and a leg injury), Cheryl ran anyway and clocked in at 5 hours 58 minutes and 37 seconds—raising over $11,000 for CURE OM.
Cheryl, forever a tireless advocate for UM awareness, leaves behind a loving husband Thomas Gehrer, Sr., three children, three step-children, a grandson, seven brothers and sisters and countless friends whom she inspired over the years with her humor, positive outlook, and zest and passion for life. Even in illness, Cheryl touched many lives with her story, inspiring others to join the fight for a cure.
Our deepest sympathies go out to Cheryl’s loved ones and to all the families whose lives have been touched by UM.