Sharlee Jeter reveals what she learned kicking cancer’s ass
Sharlee Jeter was a senior at Atlanta’s Spelman College when she received frightening, life-altering news. It was November 2000, and the then-20-year-old sister of Yankees legend Derek Jeter was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma after noticing a lump in her neck.
She would have to buckle down for the fight of her life. To her parents, Dorothy and Charles Jeter, that meant Sharlee would put her life on pause and return to the safe haven of their New Jersey home.
“My parents just assumed [I’d quit school and come home],” Sharlee tells The Post. “I remember my mom pleading with me, saying, ‘I’ll renovate the entire downstairs. It will be your apartment. You can come and go as you please.’ ”
But the spunky Jeter, whose brother had just captured his fourth World Series title with the Yankees, had other ideas. Cancer or no cancer, the math major wanted to finish her degree — and hang out with her friends. She resolved to commute to New York every other Thursday to undergo chemotherapy treatment at Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering before returning to school on Saturday.
It’s an ordeal she revisits in her new book, “The Stuff: Unlock Your Power To Overcome Challenges, Soar, and Succeed” (Simon & Schuster), co-written with her good friend Dr. Sampson Davis.
It was a rigorous, painful period, she says, with a lot of miles logged, but she was ultimately declared cancer-free seven months later, in May 2001.
And for that, she credits having a team. Her oncologist, Dr. Stephen Nimer, helped her convince her “very strict” parents to allow her to execute her plan. Her family and close friends also supported her: Her brother called her daily, while her parents were at every doctor’s appointment. Some of her pals even passed up a spring-break trip so she wouldn’t be left out.
“The toughest thing for me was watching what my family went through and feeling like I had been a burden,” says Jeter, who would finish school in December 2001 and walk in a spring 2002 ceremony. Later, she would become president of her brother’s Turn 2 Foundation, which promotes a healthy lifestyle for children.
And so Jeter was intrigued when Davis — a top NJ emergency-room doctor who grew up in impoverished, drug-infested Newark — suggested they write a book examining the hidden strengths that propel people past major adversity.
Before then, she had never considered that she possessed anything special. But Davis and others around her disagreed. Her mother even told her that if it had been her brother in her shoes, he would have left school and come home for treatment. A private person, he kept his sister’s struggle to himself — opening up only after she had beaten the disease.
“I remember that day he called me from the stadium and said, ‘Are you OK if I say something?’ ” Jeter recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t care.’ ” But she says she wanted the world to know that her superstar brother was grappling with more than his batting average.
For the book, Jeter and Davis embarked on a two-year journey to define “the stuff” — the attributes common to those who overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
“From the first 20 years of my life, I had more negative situations than positive,” says Davis, 45, who did time in a juvenile facility for acting as the getaway driver in an armed robbery. “I’d try to say to myself, ‘I can’t control these negative things, but I can learn from them.’ ”
In addition to documenting their own trials, the pair interviewed incredible people who triumphed over tragedy. John O’Leary became a father, businessman and motivational speaker after suffering burns over nearly 90 percent of his body when he was 9. Rich Ruffalo, a teacher, basketball coach and athlete, found a way to thrive despite the fact that he was losing his eyesight; in 1988, the US Olympic Committee named him Blind Athlete of the Year. And when Glenn and Cara O’Neill’s daughter was diagnosed with a rare disease, the family quarantined themselves for two whole years to ensure no infections were brought into the home.
Not all of the struggles are health related: One entrepreneur built a multimillion dollar business only to have the company taken from her through some legal loopholes. She summoned up the strength to refocus her life and launch a new successful venture.
“We wanted to use ordinary-but-extraordinary people. People you could see at work, school, you name it. We can see ourselves in every individual in this book,” says Davis, also the author of “The Pact” and “The Bond.”
Through these journeys, Davis and Jeter identified 11 elements that make up “the stuff” — including refocusing rage, leaning into hard work, pushing the limits and flipping negatives to positives.
Jeter made many self-discoveries along the way.
“My family had been really supportive . . . but they’re supposed to tell you that you have these [exceptional] qualities. Once I was done with the project, I could see it [for myself,] too.”
In addition to building a network of support, she also learned she had the ability to focus on the positive.
“I turned something really bad into something that, for me, was a badge of honor,” she says. “Taking a cancer diagnosis and saying, ‘This is going to be my thing. It’s going to separate me from Derek. No one can compare me to him, with this battle. Nobody can say I got through it because of him.’ What they’re gonna say is I got through it.”
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