Sherry Pollex and Martin Truex Jr. ready for the next Catwalk for a Cause

— -- Event founder Sherry Pollex has an extra responsibility Wednesday at an annual fashion show that features kids battling cancer.

Pollex, who recently finished a brutal 17 months of chemotherapy, will walk the runway with one of the girls.

Without a wig.

"My hair looks just like hers," Pollex said. "It's short and I look like a boy."

That new twist to the seventh annual Catwalk for a Cause promises to jar people, forcing them to look twice at Pollex and to see the reality of a 37-year-old who was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer in August 2014.

The shock, though, likely will pale to another gut-punch of cancer brutality. For the first time at the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation event that has evolved into a must-attend on the NASCAR industry schedule, Truex and longtime girlfriend Pollex will honor past Catwalk participants who have since died.

No one really knows how it will impact the evening. All they know: They must continue to create memories and fight like hell.

"Now I have to live what I'm preaching because now I'm one of them," Pollex said. "Now I have to survive, too. I don't have a choice. I have to find a way."

It's astonishing, really, that before last August, the dozens of kids who had participated in the Catwalk had beaten the odds and continued to beat cancer.

Few associated with the foundation thought that uplifting streak would last forever. But few could prepare for what would come in 2015: Three children who participated in the event, plus another who had planned to walk but never got the chance because of the disease, died over a five-month period.

"It gives me chills to think about it or talk about it," said Truex, a fearless competitor on the track.

Their deaths have shaken two of the toughest and most giving people in the NASCAR garage. The couple work with the children throughout the year culminating in Catwalk, which fashion boutique owner Pollex envisioned as a way to help these children with the world against them feel like rock stars while raising money for a cause.

Little did Pollex know that after five years of helping children through their battles, she would begin her own, and little did she know that she would try to console families while also continuing her own chemotherapy treatments.

"I was in 17 months of straight treatment and we were worried about me losing my life -- and we still are," Pollex said. "And in the midst of all that, where we're helping all these families and we're doing all this stuff to get ready for Catwalk and here we lose four kids.

"We're like, 'What is going on? Why are we losing so many children in the midst of our own personal battle?' For me, that was the hardest part of last year."

The youngest of the four to die perished first. Jeramiah Karriker, a 9-year-old who had multiple bouts with leukemia and was a 2014 Catwalk participant, died Aug. 4.

"Watching Jeramiah pass away from that disease was horrible," said Pollex, who had visited Karriker in the hospital. "I never truly grieved it because I was so in the middle of my own treatment. That day when we were at the hospital [to visit him], I had my wigs on and I had to take myself and remove myself from what was happening because I was so scared that was going to be me.

"That sounds like such a selfish thing to say. But when you face your mortality every day you wake up, you can't help it. You want so bad to be strong for them because you want them to look at you and think that they can do it, too."

Remaining strong got more difficult three months later when Elijah Aschbrenner succumbed to epithelioid sarcoma. The 10-year-old boy who had courageously participated in the 2015 Catwalk the day after a radiation treatment and whose cancer battle had caught the attention of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, died Nov. 10. It hit the NASCAR community hard, as his parents previously had worked in the industry.

Grace Haynes didn't even make it to the Catwalk stage. Selected as a 2015 participant, she couldn't participate and Pollex never met her. Lorra Bowyer, wife of NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer, held a sign for Grace as she walked the runway last year. The 14-year-old Haynes died Dec.14 of bone cancer.

As much as those deaths rattled Pollex, the next one would test all her resolve. Torie Costa had participated in four Catwalks throughout her battle with rhabdomyosarcoma. Costa, a stepdaughter to NASCAR crew chief Scott Zipadelli, died at age 20. On Christmas Day.

"She looked like the epitome of health last year," said Becky Hanson Hughes, Aschbrenner's mother. "I knew Elijah was struggling, but he put on a brave face.

"But Torie looked beautiful and she had participated in Catwalk [nearly] from the beginning. ... We looked to her as, 'Wow, you can beat cancer' and she is living her life and is as beautiful as ever."

When Costa opened the 2015 Catwalk, she spoke about Pollex and the ovarian cancer message that the Truex foundation has now combined with its focus on pediatric cancer.

Pollex had no clue that Costa would mention any of that. It made her emotional, so she can't really fathom how emotional she will get without Costa walking the runway Wednesday night.

"I knew her chance of survival was not good but she just seemed like this unbreakable person," Pollex said. "She stood up on that stage and started the show last year and everybody was like, 'Hhhhho-lyyyyy s---. Look at her. This girl, if anyone was going to beat rhabdomyosarcoma, it's going to be her.'"

All these young cancer patients gone way too soon, all testimonials to the message of the Catwalk that pediatric funding ranks too low among all cancer research. Their deaths leave people mad and angry, not just from a "Why me?" sense but also because they wonder why the treatment often consists of watered down versions of drugs designed to treat adults.

Their deaths made Pollex think of her mortality. A doctor already has delivered to her the "get your affairs in order" speech, citing 80 percent of those with ovarian cancer suffer a recurrence and die within five years.

Pollex prefers to listen to friend Krissie Newman (wife of NASCAR driver Ryan Newman), who reminded her that regardless of percentages, nobody really knows if they will make it to the next hour, the next day or the next five years.

In the eyes of someone battling cancer, such as Pollex, the chance someone could die tragically the next day equals the chance pf someone with cancer could die from the disease. There's a chance of dying. And there is a chance of living. Make the most of it.

"It's just inevitable as we continue this event and it gets bigger and bigger, we're going to deal with loss," Pollex said. "It's just part of it.

"It is tough, though. That's the crappy part of it. Nothing about cancer is pretty. It sucks. All of it. It's a s----- disease."

Pollex and Truex knew that prior to Pollex's diagnosis. They spend more than just the Catwalk night with the patients, who need weeks to prepare for the fashion show picking out clothes, choosing music and building up their energy. This show turns into a project that helps distract them from the tormenting chemo and radiation treatments.

Truex has trouble grasping the fact that the 2016 Catwalk will include a portion where they will commemorate the dead.

"I don't think we ever really knew we would have to go through that," he said. "I never really knew we would get so close to the kids. Especially with Sherry when she got diagnosed, it's crazy the irony and how close she gets to them and how attached she gets because she understands what they're going through.

"I don't think we ever really thought about that. ... It's a constant reminder of just how fragile these kids' lives are and how difficult a time it is for them."

The participants know the reality from the deaths of their friends and the pain they feel from their treatments. Even though Costa had gone from a bald teenager with no eyebrows and no eyelashes having fun in her first Catwalk to a more vibrant young woman in her final event, Pollex said Costa knew that she likely would die young.

"What people don't understand, throughout that entire time, most of that time, she was in treatment," Pollex said. "She was like me. She was doing maintenance chemotherapy, which we all know is regular chemotherapy.

"It's not a maintenance program. It is very tough on your body. ... She just wanted to live her life and be a young 21-year-old and go out and have fun and do all the things her other friends were doing without anyone knowing she was dying inside."

Pollex admits she didn't know that message, the one of putting on a good facade, until her own battle. She initially went to the doctor for a stomachache, not knowing of the cancer incubating inside her body.

She can put on a pretty strong face, too, deceiving those at the track with a pretty wig, an infectious smile and the determination of a former NASCAR car owner's daughter.

"People just looked at me like, 'Oh she's going to be fine, she's in treatment, she's going to be great,' " Pollex said. "That's not really reality. We know that. That's what we hope. ... I wake up every day and think I'm going to be the one that's going to beat it, and I teach my [Catwalk] kids to do the same thing.

"You can beat this. You can be different. You can do this. ... You want them to believe they're going to go to prom one day, they're going to get married and they're going to live an amazing life. The odds are some of them are gonna. But some of them aren't."

The Catwalk participants form their own support group in light of those odds. They often know the treatment their fellow patients receive. They have a bond that none of them want to have, so they rally around one another when they have bad days or they lose one of their own.

"I don't know if God gives them something, some special power to handle this with such grace because they have to deal with something that is so awful," Zipadelli said. "I watched [Torie] do this with such grace, it just blows me away. Everybody around that person [battling cancer] seems to be a better person because you're not so selfish and spoiled anymore."

While seeing families and friends of those who have died likely won't rattle the kids, they might spend Wednesday night oblivious to the memorial portion where at least some of those grieving families will participate. Those families already have joined the Catwalk kids at a painting party and a day at the park, events that included many of the drivers the children will get paired with as they walk the runway.

"Having lived it with Elijah and seeing all the other warriors, there is no tougher battle than to battle cancer as a child," Hughes said.

"So I don't necessarily think the children participating in Catwalk are worried or think, 'What if it could be me?' Because honestly it's probably in the back of their minds regardless if they're battling cancer now or if they're in remission for five years."

You would never know if it sticks in their mind during the event. Dale Earnhardt Jr. could tell Aschbrenner physically had difficulty making it through their rehearsal. But when it came to show time, Aschbrenner didn't appear as the same kid who had spent the day before receiving radiation.

"Visibly being able to see his injuries and what the sickness had done to his body, I was amazed at how tough he was to keep fighting," Earnhardt said. "We had spent some time with him away from the Catwalk and he just worked hard and I never saw him feel sorry for himself. ... I was amazed at how he made it as far as he did because he certainly was taking a beating and his body was showing it.

"But his disposition, man, he was always positive."

That positive attitude, especially at the Catwalk, doesn't come just by chance. Because the event primarily attracts those in the NASCAR industry, many of the 750 people who attend don't go to see Earnhardt walk the ramp. Big freakin' deal -- they see Earnhardt and the others as part of their work. But watching the kids walk with them?

They capture the show because the audience truly wants to cheer them.

That's why Aschbrenner struck a pose where he put his hands in the air and displayed the peace sign a day after he had to lean on his mother while struggling through rehearsal. That's why Costa appeared much sassier on the runway than at home.

"When they do get out there, the appreciation and the applause that they get from the crowd spurs these spontaneous things they do," Earnhardt said. "The thing is the [other] people that are walking are backstage, they know that anything can happen at any moment with these kids so we're all clamoring around the monitors and trying to watch to see what they're going to do.

"They all do something fun. They come out of their shell."

Aschbrenner and Earnhardt had talked about doing high-fives but nothing like the pose Aschbrenner struck, a pose now embodied in the logo used by Hughes for her Prayers For Elijah Foundation. The young boy, who had so many down moments over the previous year, rocked it on stage, feeding on the energy of the crowd even while the cancer fed on his body.

"He felt like the luckiest kid on earth at that very moment at that event," Hughes said. "To say that about a child who had battled cancer, had neck reconstruction surgery and then had just found out it had returned, you would have never guessed it because Catwalk gave him such happiness."

Pollex expects that happiness to remain at a Catwalk that will be obviously different than any other. The kids will do their thing. The adults likely will sit and wonder.

The spirit of those who died will have to carry them through the tough moments.

"There will be some tears but nobody is going to be hanging their head," Earnhardt said. "It will be a joyous and energetic evening. All those kids are ill and all those kids are going through stuff, and the whole thing about that event is to raise their spirits and make them feel special."

Pollex will let the families of the Catwalk children decide if they want to view the memorial portion of the program but she'll fill the area backstage with music, animals, clothing changes and makeup. For herself, Pollex doesn't think she'll watch much of it, afraid she might break down in front of the children.

"We never talked about her dying," Zipadelli said about the teenager he helped raise. "We went to a lot of funerals of kids who died and had the disease, and it was sad. [The Catwalk] made her feel really alive and really special and really strong and kind of like, 'I can do this.'

"It was never about the disease for her. It really was about the other people. I don't think any of those kids are thinking about themselves when they're doing it. They're thinking, 'Hey this is so cool, let's raise money for pediatric cancer because people need to know what this is all about.' "

Zipadelli and Hughes admitted they and their families have thought about not going Wednesday night but say their children would have wanted them to attend. While motivated by sadness and by anger, the Catwalk will remain an upbeat event that stresses fun and compassion.

"It's going to be tough to not see Elijah's purple hair and Torie's amazing smile and then leave and be all excited," Zipadelli said. "It's probably going to be sadder to leave than to be there."

Pollex said she hopes it provokes some sadness, that it will help people change attitudes not only toward increasing funding but also toward adopting a healthy lifestyle. Hughes hopes that as tough as it will be for her, the memorials will send a message.

"I hope that it startles people," Hughes said. "I hope that people look at it and say, 'Wow, I can't believe this is happening.' Prior to Elijah being diagnosed with cancer, I didn't realize. You don't realize how seven kids a day die from cancer.

"You see a commercial on TV and you think, 'Oh, you know that's sad,' and you kind of go on with your life."

Truex and Pollex don't need reminders of the children who died. Truex still wears an Aschbrenner bracelet. Pollex, during the interview, showed texts she received from Aschbrenner's father.

The couple knows they must use the deaths to show the reality, the rottenness of the disease. Because out of sight means out of mind. And the idea of not acknowledging the disease has claimed past participants and ignoring those who died is, frankly, just unacceptable.

"I just felt like [Costa] could be the one to beat the odds," Pollex said. "Which is how I feel about myself. I tell myself that every day. I know what my chance of survival is, and I know it's not good. But I wake up every day and tell myself I can be that person that can beat the odds.

"Because that's what you make yourself believe. It's how you get up every day and start your day. If not, you would just sit home and feel sorry for yourself all the time. And I don't have time for that. I've got kids to save and other women to help."