Sherri Rogers, a married mother of two daughters, knew something was wrong. She felt exhausted, was forgetful and just plain wasn’t herself.
“I know this is not my normal — waking up tired, all day tired,” recalls Sherri, a school psychologist in Milwaukee who lived an active life.
Her family knew something was off too.
“She wasn’t herself,” says her husband, Derrick Rogers. “We were having strange conversations about why she was listless, but none of it was about cancer.”
Her youngest daughter, Zion, was also concerned. Her mother slept a lot now, and Zion saw less and less of her. “Sometimes I would have to do things on my own because she couldn’t be there with me,” Zion recalls.
Sherri asked her doctor for a colonoscopy, a test that examines your large intestine for abnormalities, including colon cancer. Colon cancer, which is more common among African Americans as well as more likely to be fatal, had been an unwelcome visitor to Sherri’s family before: Her father was diagnosed with the disease at 26. His mother, brother and sister also had had colon cancer, as had a first cousin.
Despite her deep family history with the disease, her doctor disregarded her request, chalking up her symptoms to a normal part of approaching 50. Sherri, who had been getting colonoscopies every three years as a preventative measure, moved on to a new doctor and once again requested the exam. He immediately gave her the test.
When she received her results on March 17, 2017, Sherri’s worst fears were realized: She had colon cancer. Following surgical intervention, chemotherapy would begin soon after. Sherri felt uneasy about the treatment and wanted doctors to dig deeper into her family history.
“I wanted to make sure that my chemo treatment was specific to me,” she says.
Once again, she was ignored. Her treatment was unsuccessful, and worse yet, she now felt a deep pain in her midsection. Tests confirmed that her cancer had spread to her abdomen and had advanced to stage four.
“They told me it was incurable. It was like a death sentence,” Sherri says.
Rather than begin another round of chemotherapy, she followed her instincts to seek out another opinion and genetic test – an examination of a person’s DNA that can reveal mutations in the genes and can be used as a blueprint to guide personalized care and precision medicine.
She turned to Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Genomic Sciences and Precision Medicine Center for help. MCW is home to a team of experts who are leaders in genetic research and the field of precision medicine. They specialize in creating personalized treatments and interventions that are guided by a person’s genetics.
That work begins by taking a detailed family history, also known as a “pedigree,” to uncover if there is a family history of inheritance for disease susceptibility, according to Jenny Geurts, a genetic counselor at MCW. Looking at Sherri’s family history, it was obvious that colon cancer was prevalent, but why? Finding out would necessitate performing Sherri’s long-awaited genetic test, one that would end up changing the health trajectory of Sherri’s entire family.
Her test revealed Lynch syndrome, the most common cause of hereditary colon cancer. Individuals with Lynch syndrome are more likely to get colon and other cancers and get them at an earlier age. The genetic test helped pinpoint a mutation that causes predisposition to disease and also becomes a useful marker in treating cancer, says Geurts. For Sherri, genetic testing served a dual benefit. She learned the cause of her cancer and the generation of cancers before her and that there was a 50/50 chance it could be passed on to the next generation.
“[Testing] identified other family members who would be at risk for cancer so we could offer them early detection and prevention options. Now that we have this genetic information, we have the power to stop this cancer before it ever starts,” Geurts says.
Using the findings from the genetic test, the team developed an immunotherapy treatment, which uses the body’s own immune system to better fight and treat the cancer, specific to Sherri. Each month her tumor shrank; the cancer was going away.
“I feel great. I feel like I’m back to myself. I feel normal,” Sherri says. And the benefits of genetic testing extend beyond Sherri.
Sherri’s oldest daughter, Adia, also took the test, which revealed that she didn’t have Lynch syndrome. Her youngest daughter will take the test in a few years, and Sherri was able to share with her family information from Geurts on Lynch syndrome and guidance on early testing and prevention.
“She was able to provide her family members with a gift of early detection and prevention of cancer,” Geurts says.
Sherri and her family were also grateful for the team of doctors and specialists who cared for them at Froedtert Hospital, including James P. Thomas, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at MCW and section head of solid tumor oncology with the Froedtert & MCW Cancer Network.
“The first visit I had more hope,” Derrick recalls. “There was a different feel and spirit going into Froedtert.”
“At Froedtert there was hope,” she says. “I felt like they were going to keep doing something until I felt better.”
Sherri has taken her painful experience and recovery and used it as motivation to start her own nonprofit group, Be A Living Miracle, or BALM. BALM was developed to help African American and Latinx women who are going through cancer treatment or are in remission.
Sherri wants to provide those women with resources including wig services, essential oils, massages and other support. The goal is to help women who are having a hard time feel like women and help them find the strength that Sherri gained during her experience.
“From that I’m able to give something back. That’s the beauty of this. I turned my pain into something purposeful,” she says.