One year after sharing his hopeful story, Kenn Sheats opens up about facing cancer recurrence
Sitting in a corner of Joe’s Java, Kenn Sheats sips on a latte. Sporting a baseball cap and button-down shirt, he’s trimmer than a year ago – a sign that his body has endured much change over the last 12 months, since the first time he publicly shared his cancer journey.
“I want today to be the best. Maybe tomorrow will be better, maybe it’ll be worse. We’ll deal with it tomorrow, you know?” he said. Something in his smile suggests this pearl of wisdom was learned the hard way.
Today, Kenn is on the other side of his battle with mantle cell lymphoma, which took him on many twists and turns. His calendar is now full of follow-up visits, regular lab work, meticulous medication tracking and a much-anticipated return to his job as a patient access training coordinator for Saint Joseph Mercy Health System. And, for all of it, he says, he is grateful.
It’s the kind of outlook one might expect from someone who, a mere six months ago, went through a life-changing stem-cell transplant to eradicate a stubborn and aggressive disease, which, for now, is staying at bay.
Kenn’s cancer reared its ugly head again nearly a year ago, with the familiar symptoms of intense stomach pain and rapid weight loss he experienced back in 2015. Kenn went through several cycles of inpatient and outpatient chemotherapy last fall in a last-ditch effort to tackle the cancer. But when it became clear his immune system just wasn’t strong enough to fight it, Kenn’s oncologist, Dr. Tareq Al Baghdadi, suggested a stem cell transplant.
Replacing his immune system with stem cells from a healthy person would give Kenn the only fighting chance against this cancer.
The transplant would have to be done at Michigan Medicine, and while the thought of transferring his care was daunting, Kenn said, he knew, “that was my only hope for a cure.”
Kenn was referred to the bone marrow transplant center at the University of Michigan. Doctors decided to pursue an outside donor after siblings were ruled out as matches. Miraculously, the national registry located a donor who was a perfect match for 9.5 out of 10 genetic markers. Doctors joked he could be a long-lost relative.
“Makes you wonder,” Kenn laughed.
The donor, a young man in his early 20s, agreed to be a part of the healing journey, and things moved quickly after that. Kenn went through another grueling round of chemo – the hardest yet – to essentially kill his own immune system and prepare his body to receive the new stem cells.
On November 14, 2017, Kenn was inducted into a special club of people who celebrate a re-birth day.
That day Kenn received donor stem cells via a blood transfusion. It took all of about half an hour, and Kenn’s sister, Pam, and his partner, David, stood by his side.
Overcome with emotion, “I just laid there and cried,” Kenn said.
Kenn was discharged on Dec. 1 and returned home with a brand new, but very fragile, immune system. He came home on several medications to ward off Graft-versus-host disease, a complication commonly associated with stem cell transplants, as well as IV magnesium.
“I felt worse after the transplant, and my body was exhausted from trying to recover from the chemo, as well as fighting whatever germs were coming my way,” Kenn said.
He spent much of the month in slumber, in the guest room that he and David fixed up as a safe space with new flooring and fresh paint.
Slowly but surely, Kenn’s new immune system began to grow and work, and his follow-up labs showed a steady climb in his absolute neutrophil count.
Road to Recovery
To the delight of his colleagues, and the surprise of his doctors, who told him he’d be out of commission for at least a year, Kenn returned to work in May, four months cancer-free and 42 pounds lighter.
He felt better than he did a year ago, ready to forge ahead in good health.
But in late May, Kenn came upon another bump on his road to recovery. An ultrasound detected a mass on his pancreas that came back positive for mantle cell.
Kenn is now set to undergo radiation treatment at St. Joe’s to destroy the mass before receiving a “boost” of immune cells from Kenn’s donor.
While the news of a recurrence post-transplant was initially devastating, Kenn said he is more invigorated to use his story to inspire colleagues and advocate for patients.
“I’m a fighter,” he said. “While this is a set-back, I’m more determined than ever to fight. My work here is not done!”
Kenn’s story has already inspired several of his friends and colleagues to make gifts in his name to help fund St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor’s cancer center renovation and expansion project. As a patient advisor on the redesign committee, Kenn has been providing input that will help enhance comprehensive care when the center opens later this year.
“I think I’m a much more compassionate and empathetic person now,” he said.
He feels a special connection with the men and women who are also publicly sharing their cancer stories, in Saint Joseph Mercy Health System’s recently launched marketing campaign touting its regional cancer network.
“Every time I see one of those commercials on TV, I get a little weepy because I understand,” he said. “I can empathize with every single patient. The physician culture, the culture of our health system is very different. I felt loved. And I felt supported every step of the way.”
Support from caregivers and his loved ones was the foundation of Kenn’s hope through some of the darkest moments.
“Whether it was David, or my family, or my coworkers or friends, every time I wanted to give up, something would happen. Someone would reach out, out of the blue, and I knew that I couldn’t give up,” Kenn said.
And now, Kenn earnestly believes he went through this journey so that he could provide that same support to others.
“No matter what someone goes through – even if it’s just a bad day at work – it’s hard, but don’t give up. Don’t throw in the towel. Reach out to those people that love and support you, and get that extra boost.”
“And if you don’t have anybody, call me,” he added emphatically.