Sherry Booles is a Southern woman, and Southern women take a lot of pride in their hair. So when the vice president of marketing at Acxiom and the chair of CARTI’s Tux ’n Trees found out she had an aggressive form of cancer and would need chemotherapy, the first words out of her mouth were, “Oh my god, am I going to lose my hair?”
“I’m a vain Southern female,” she laughs. “I was worried about how I would look without hair. But I’m also a grandmother, and I didn’t want to scare my 5-year-old grandson.” Booles insisted on wearing a wig through her chemotherapy treatments, even through the hot summer months. “I was miserable,” she admits, “and I’m quite certain that that wig was fooling nobody.”
She certainly wasn’t fooling her grandson Bennett, who, after Booles’ second chemo treatment, asked her to take off her wig. After much coaxing from her grandson and her daughter, Booles removed her wig and watched her grandson’s eyes grow overly large. “Mimi,” he said, “you’re beautiful.”
“I never put that wig back on,” Booles says. “It’s amazing the life lessons you learn. I was so worried about my hair and it took a 5-year-old to show me that I’m beautiful.”
Three years later, Booles is sharing the life lessons she learned from her own experience with cancer and using them to spread the word about the work done at CARTI. A native of Hamburg, Arkansas, Booles is a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and spent 25 years in marketing before making the move to Acxiom eight years ago — a company she says was incredibly supportive when her life was turned upside down by the breast cancer diagnosis she received in April 2011.
“I never thought I would hear my name and cancer in the same sentence,” Booles says. “It’s like remembering where you were when 9/11 happened or when JFK was assassinated. I will never forget the exact time I got the call from the radiologist to tell me the biopsy was malignant.” After her initial surgery, Booles was sent to Dr. Mariann Harrington at Little Rock Hematology/Oncology, a division of CARTI. “I knew about CARTI,” Booles says. “Over the years my husband and I had occasionally attended Festival of Trees. My friend Alison Melson is the vice president of marketing there. My daughter had volunteered at CARTI. I was sort of a sideline supporter, but never in my wildest imagination did I ever think I would need their services.”
booles didn’t know what to expect when she began radiation treatments, but when she arrived at 7:30 a.m. on her first day, she was surprised to find Melson seated in the waiting room. “I’d been through chemo by that point, I was bald headed. I had been through the worst of the worst,” Booles says. “But I showed up for my first radiation treatment and there was Alison, waiting to be my cheerleader that day. That’s the kind of thing that people don’t have to do. It exemplifies the treatment I received from everyone at CARTI.”
After seven weeks of radiation, Booles was declared cancer-free on December 30, 2011, ensuring that the holiday season would always be a special time of year for her. “Someone once asked me if I ever wondered ‘Why me?’ and I realized that no, I don’t. I hadn’t once stopped to ask myself ‘Why me?’ which is so unlike me,” she laughs. “Now, I know that the reason I never thought that was because if I went through it so I could inspire one person to donate to CARTI, or get a mammogram earlier, then — I’m not going to say I’d go through it again — but it was worth it.”
Booles was asked to speak as a survivor at CARTI’s Tux ’n Trees gala in 2012. Though she agonized over what to say, and worried that her hair hadn’t fully grown back, she ultimately spoke from her heart that evening, receiving a standing ovation. People came up to her throughout the night to share their own stories of cancer, or those of a loved one, and tell her how her story had resonated with them.
“CARTI and cancer have one thing in common,” Booles says. “Cancer does not care what’s going on in your life; it doesn’t care what age you are, what race you are, if you’re rich or poor, if you’ve got children who need you. It doesn’t care if you’ve got a busy career. And neither does CARTI. From the receptionist at the clinic where I had my chemo, to the technicians and doctors, and everyone in between — every single one of those people treated me like I was the most important thing in their life in that moment. And can you imagine how difficult it must be to go in and put a smile on your face every day and love on people not knowing what their outcome is going to be? To encourage them at their worst — because they do see you at your very worst. They love you through the whole process, no matter what.”
The next year, CARTI approached Booles to chair the 2013 Tux ’n Trees event. “My first thought was, ‘I can’t do this!’ But how do you say no to an organization that saved your life?” Not only did Booles chair a successful event, she was asked to return as chairperson for the second time this year, and without the anxiety of trying something new, she was quick to take on the responsibility once again. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for CARTI. I will never quit asking people for money to support CARTI; I will do Tux ’n Trees as long as they allow me to do it. Because as nervous as I was to chair the event last year, you can’t ever repay someone for saving your life.”
Jan Burford, CEO of CARTI, was thrilled to have Booles join the team of CARTI volunteers. “Like most of our patients, Sherry formed a special relationship with her doctors, her care team and the people who sat beside her in the chemo chairs. She knows how hard it is to get that diagnosis. She knows what it is like to get chemo, radiation and surgery. And when she got through it, she immediately said ‘I want to help.’ Her story is touching and motivating, and to bring that to the table as a volunteer is very powerful.”
Each year, the CARTI Auxiliary plans an event-packed week to raise funds for the patient-assistance services they want to provide throughout the year. The four-day Festival of Trees kicks off with the Festival of Fashion show on November 19 and culminates with its elegant gala, Tux ’n Trees on November 22. The event will take place at the Statehouse Convention Center and feature a live and silent auction, dinner and dancing, and the chance to see the festival’s eponymous trees.
“I think at the heart of the holidays is hope,” Burford says. “When people walk out of Festival of Trees, they can leave knowing they are giving hope to cancer patients and their families.”
Tux ‘n Trees “Oh What a Night” Gala
When: 6 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 22
Where: Statehouse Convention Center
Tickets + info: CARTI.com/events