Their love shines despite double cancer struggle

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Jerry Fleming’s voice cracks with emotion as he talks about his wife of almost five years, Sandra Fleming, the woman bravely battling ovarian cancer and the one for whom his love is so deep and clear he calls it “high-def love.”

“There is a biblical term about the refiners’ fire burning away the impurities,” says Fleming. “Cancer does that for those you love. I only see Sandra as perfect.”

There’s another reason Fleming’s voice is hoarse. He’s also fighting cancer.

Two years after Sandra, 40, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of ovarian cancer, this Macomb County couple was hit with a cancer double whammy. What Jerry thought was swollen gland in his neck last fall turned out to be Metastatic Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Tonsil.

Fleming, who owns a Macomb County computer technical support business but hasn’t been able to work much since his diagnosis in December, said finding out he, too, had cancer was “surreal.” Still, the two are doing what they can to be together, even if that means coordinating treatment appointments at Karmanos Cancer Center or staying in the same hospital room.

“We have gotten treatment on the same days and try to arrange things to limit our trips down here,” says Jerry, 51, who has been staying with Sandra at Karmanos for nearly two weeks; he simply takes the elevator down to the first floor for his own appointments. “We also were in the same room for a night a few weeks ago. We were both in the hospital for several days and Harper managed to get us in the same room for a night.”

With Sandra unable to work and medical bills piling up, family and friends have organized a fundraiser for the Clinton Township couple at the Cloverleaf restaurant in Eastpointe on Monday. Twenty percent of proceeds from food and nonalcoholic beverages from 5-9 p.m. will be donated to the couple. A GoFundMe page also has raised almost $5,000 for the couple.

“That’s the other story here,” says Jerry, sitting in a hospital coffee shop, his head bald from two rounds of chemotherapy. “So many people – from my clients to friends – have stepped up to help us.”

Jerry and Sandra met in 2010 through an online dating website. Sandra, an office manager, had gone on enough bad dates that she almost canceled their first date, but a friend had said never miss a first date. So she didn’t. They met at Biggby Coffee.

Jerry, who is divorced and has three grown kids from his first marriage, lit up the moment he saw Sandra, smiling ear to ear, he recalls. Sandra panicked.

“She saw my smile and said to herself, ‘Oh crap, he likes me!’” recalls Jerry.

The two started dating and Sandra says Jerry, a self-described hopeless romantic who isn’t afraid to quote Sarah McLachlan songs, swept her off her feet. They married on Sept. 10, 2011.

“Sandra has given me the love I longed for,” says Jerry.

But now they face the ultimate test. After Sandra successfully fought her cancer in 2013, it came back with a vengeance late last summer and spread. “It was a baseball bat to the stomach for both us,” says Fleming.

Sandra went through a 16-hour surgery to remove her gallbladder, spleen and 18 cancerous growths. She stayed in the hospital for 23 days. Now hospitalized, Jerry says doctors are hoping Sandra will get strong enough to try two more chemo drugs. But she’s discouraged.

Still, “she is very stubbornly strong,” says Jerry, who has been staying at Karmanos with Sandra for nearly two weeks.

Jerry, meanwhile, found out Wednesday that his tumors have shrunk through induction chemo, but not enough for doctors to perform surgery. He starts more chemotherapy and radiation in about seven weeks.

Much of his focus remains on Sandra. He says it “hurts like hell” to think about the pain she’s endured, to think about losing her.

“I now know what it is like to really be in love and the pleasure has been worth the pain,” he says.