Sarah DeBord lived with stage IV colon cancer since November of 2011, when she was diagnosed at the age of 34. She knew early on that there was no way out of this disease and that it would probably take her life.
It wasn’t a young person’s cancer, and she was young. It was indiscriminate in its victim. She hadn’t had a genetic disposition to ‘get’ this cancer, as far as she ever knew. She had always been focused on a healthy diet and exercise, keeping her body as fit as possible.
Ten years prior to her diagnosis, when she was 24, she’d shown some of the symptoms, including blood in her stools, and went to see a doctor. The doctor told her then that the symptoms were "probably" caused by hemorrhoids and did no further testing, because he, too, considered colon cancer to be a ‘mature’ person’s disease.
She was told at the time of her diagnosis that people in such an advanced stage of this cancer may live 5 years.
She survived almost 9 and died in July of this year.
Although cancer limited her physically, she travelled the world, found love, spoke passionately about everything she believed in, helped countless numbers of people who were diagnosed with colon cancer, raised awareness of this dreadful disease, and raised two boys.
This last, perhaps, was her finest.
Sarah DeBord was born on March 5, 1977, in South Carolina to Jane and David DeBord. When she was young, her family moved to Pasadena, California. She graduated with the Pasadena High School class of 1995 and from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, in 1999.
Sarah began her professional career as a probation officer but was soon approached by Lisa White to help her with her 8-year-old son who was having medical issues. Within a short time, Sarah had moved in with the Whites and became a part of the family.
The Whites gave her a stable loving home.
“Sarah brought me into the kitchen once and pointed to the empty dishwasher,” said Lisa. “I didn’t know what the point was, so I asked her. She told me that she emptied it because she really wanted to and because she was part of the family. It was really important for Sarah to have a sense of being and to belong; to feel loved. We were able to do that for her as a family, and I was able to do that for her, as a person. She did it for me as a person, too.”
Many years later, after Sarah had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and Lisa's husband, Geoffrey, was diagnosed with mesothelioma, the two would call each other and joke that each’s cancer was worse than the other’s.
Sarah took on many roles within the White household, doing things that any family member would do. She helped take care of their son, like a sister would take care of a brother, and helped with daily household tasks. She even began to help Lisa and Geoffrey with their location scout business and became a Location Scout Manager.
Sarah met Kyle Woody in 2003 while scouting a construction project in Burbank, California that he was managing. They started dating and were married in 2005. The couple moved to the east coast that same year, where she became a mom to their sons, Merrick, in 2007, and Lachlan, in 2010.
Soon after the birth of their second son, in 2011, Sarah was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.
In the summer of 2012 , the idea for Jack's Caregiver Coalition was born. It was Sarah's long-time friends from California, the Culp family, who were responsible for bringing Jack's message of "serve the caregiver" to her caregiver Kyle. That story was recently featured in this article of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
In 2014, the family moved to the Twin Cities. Sarah had been wanting to move the Twin Cities for many years, but Kyle resisted until Sarah was diagnosed with cancer. It was important to Kyle that Sarah spend her final years where she was happiest.
Sarah found her purpose in her pain. She found her voice.
After her diagnosis, Sarah had a lot to say and didn’t waste any time saying it. In 2011 she started a blog called the Colon Cancer Chick, where she spoke of her cancer journey in brutal, sometimes graphic honesty.
She wanted to people to know what she hadn’t known until it was too late: that colon cancer can affect anyone at any age; that it is treatable if caught early; and, OH! here are the symptoms.
She wrote from an extreme point of suffering. Her many, intense treatments, combined with the progressing cancer, took a huge physical and emotional toll on Sarah and she wanted to help other colon cancer patients to understand this burden.
She wrote to moms who were undergoing treatment from an infusion chair. She wrote to teenagers and other young people who might see blood in their stools and ignore it rather than having it checked out. She wrote to lonely, lost souls who were charting their cancer course on their own. She wrote to people who questioned the doctor’s diagnosis and wanted a second opinion.
And many wrote back!
She spoke of her own physical changes, the pain caused by her treatments, and her unrelenting cancer in often humbling terms - with pictures to go with.
In all, she produced 248 honest portraits of the painful and sometimes liberating moments in her cancer journey.
“Sarah’s advocacy,” Lisa recalls, “may have been partially fueled by the frustration and anger she felt because her own condition could have been prevented many years earlier if only the doctors had diagnosed her then rather than telling her that she just had hemorrhoids.”
Sarah joined the Colon Cancer Coalition in 2015.
Her position with the Colon Cancer Coalition started out as a part-time job, doing social media and web site content, but soon turned into a full-time marketing communications & program manager position, where she was doing interviews, traveling, and doing panel discussions for the organization.
“Even though she had been living for several years with stage IV colon cancer, I’ve never seen a woman so alive,” said Erin Peterson, communications director at the Colon Cancer Coalition. “This is a testament to Sarah and who she was, but it’s also a message to the rest of us, letting us know the value of life and how we should live it.
"Sarah soon became the conscience of our entire organization,” Erin says. “She was such a patient advocate and she always reminded us of why our organization was here and why we were doing what we were doing. Her loss has created such a void that will be hard to fill."
Sarah also wrote for the Cure magazine and was a moderator with an online patient community called Colontown.
Cancer also gave Sarah the gift of realizing that life is short (because she could see an end to it) and should be lived with gusto, on her own terms.
This realization led Sarah to question and ultimately end her 12-year marriage to Kyle, acknowledging that, over time, the two had fallen out of love. They would always be the best of friends who shared two wonderful boys, but Sarah needed that love, that gusto.
I've learned that it's the dying who teach us how to live, and Sarah taught those lessons to everyone in her life relentlessly. She also inspired so many people with her ability to gracefully endure horrible things over and over again, things that would crush most of us……and she did it all for her boys. She turned all that pain into so much purpose, but her babies were her above-all purpose. Her legacy is a lot of things, but for me above all it is the character of her boys. They are kind beyond their years, they are empathetic beyond their years…Sarah made the job we have in raising those boys into the men she imagined a job that will be embarrassingly easy. I couldn't screw it up even if I tried.” - Kyle Woody
Cancer took her life, but it also gave her another shot at love.
Several years later, while driving with Doug Dallmann, also a colorectal cancer survivor, from Portland to a funeral for a friend who had died of colorectal cancer, she found love again.
I really didn’t know her, but I was on the hook about five minutes into the drive. Here was this strong-willed woman with a pixie cut, whose mind was going a mile a minute, and who owned the room. Cancer took her away from me, but it’s also what brought us together.” - Doug Dallmann
The two began a long-distance relationship that lasted until her death. When they weren’t together, they were texting, or messaging, or calling each other. When they were done with one trip, Sarah was planning where they would go on their next one.
“We had 1,208 days together,” Doug says, “and we made them all count!”
Doug remained by her side until the end, staying with her and caring for Sarah and kids when she wasn't able. This allowed her kids to live with her for 3 additional months.
Sarah passed away on the evening of July 22, 2020, in the presence of loved ones, after living with colorectal cancer for eight and a half years.
Of all of the roles that Sarah played in her life, that of 'mom' to her two boys was the one she cherished most. When she was diagnosed, her boys were 4 and 1 and her strongest fear was that she would not live to witness their many milestones. She survived 9 years and was able to watch them grow and she poured as much of herself into them as anyone ever could into another. When it came to parenting, Sarah's mantra was, 'parent from where you are,' even if it's from an infusion chair.
Following are just a few of her boys' milestones she lived to see:
It was Sarah's wish that anyone wanting to make a donation in her honor make that donation to Jack's Caregiver Coalition. To celebrate her life our first "Named Fund" was established. This story was written as an expression of our gratitude for her support.
Author: Mike McGarry