A sister + a brother, raising their grandnephew: Meet an unconventional family that's thriving.
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Sherri James was leading a busy and fulfilling life as the minister of a church when she found herself in a position to answer a second calling.

The 45-year-old self-proclaimed workaholic made the ultimate offer: to become a primary caregiver for her grandnephew, Jordan.

Sherri first met Jordan when he was 13 months old, after she returned to her home state to officiate her uncle's funeral. “I fell in love with [Jordan] immediately," she recalled. “I can remember holding him one night and praying over him."


Sherri and Jordan, enjoying dinner together.

Jordan's mother — Sherri's niece — had untreated mental health issues and was having a hard time caring for Jordan. One day, Sherri's mom called to vent some frustration over potentially needing to become Jordan's caregiver when Sherri said, “What if I take him?"

“The next thing I know, my niece is calling me to ask if Jordan can stay with me for one year while she gets help," Sherri recalled. Sherri agreed, and a short time later, she flew from California to Texas to pick up her 14-month-old grandnephew. Her niece came along to help get Jordan settled in, and then she returned to Texas.

But it soon became apparent that what started off as a short-term plan would need to become more permanent. “When it became obvious that my niece would not get treatment, I petitioned the courts for guardianship and received it," Sherri said. Now 20 months old, Jordan is doing well. But here's where the story gets interesting.

Relatives take in children all the time. But how many end up co-parenting with their sibling? That's right.

Making their situation more unusual, Sherri is co-parenting Jordan with her 37-year-old brother John*.

“I absolutely adore my brother," Sherri said of John. They were close as kids despite their eight-year age difference, and their bond extended into adulthood. John stayed with her during summer breaks while she was in college, and he eventually moved to L.A., where Sherri had moved eight years earlier. After living with her for five years, he moved out in 2008.

But when John decided to stay with Sherri again temporarily last fall, the timing was perfect. Temporary stretched into indefinite because Sherri found John's presence and assistance raising Jordan "essential." She said: "I can't imagine doing this without my brother's help."

Sherri, John, and Jordan are a reminder that families aren't just made up of a mom, a dad, and their biological children. That's not just OK. It's beautiful.

The reality of life is that when a parent finds himself or herself unable to raise their child, there just aren't that many options. Foster care is one, although it's less than ideal. Family care, where a relative steps in to raise the child, is another.

Family care, also called kinship care, is fairly common.

In fact, over 6 million kids are being raised by family members other than their birth parents. In communities all across the country, family members are stepping in and stepping up where they are needed to help care for the children who need it most. These relatives don't always get recognized and rewarded, but they put in the love and work — and millions of children are better for it.

While Sherri functions as the “primary" parent, John's help raising Jordan is invaluable.

When Sherri is unable to take care of Jordan, John steps in. “What's wonderful is how much Jordan loves him," Sherri said. “When he leaves the house, Jordan cries crocodile tears. My brother is truly his BFF. ... I've learned to respect their bond."

The Jameses may have an unconventional family situation, but it works — very well.

While her “new" life is filled with toys, play dates, and diapers, Sherri prefers it. “I feel like I have better balance now with Jordan," she explained. “Before he came, I was a workaholic. But his presence forces me to play outdoors at least once a day. Now, I try to squeeze all my work into the time that he's in day care. And, at 5:30 p.m. when I pick him up, it's party on!"

At the same time, Sherri is very mindful of her niece, the woman whose baby she is raising. “She's not a bad person. She has a mental illness and it negatively impacted how she cared for Jordan," Sherri explained.

“It was not an easy decision to step in and take this baby. The fact that he is thriving now — meaning gained weight, got back on track developmentally — is our consolation that we made the right choice. But it's still hard emotionally."

The popular parenting adage “It takes a village to raise a child" came to mind when Sherri told me about her community's support.

Sherri with her mom and her "spiritual mom," Della Reese.

“I am so grateful for the way my church family has stepped up to help me," she said. One member watches Jordan during services so Sherri can serve as minister. Others have generously given clothing, toys, education resources, and welcome parenting advice.

“I really, really appreciate the way my church family has embraced Jordan and is helping me look after him. They are an enormous blessing."

Sherri may not have intended to become a parent at the exact time it happened or in the way it occurred, but she has a lot in common with most parents.

Like all moms and women raising kids, she wants one thing: what's best for Jordan.

Acknowledging that she and her brother haven't had a discussion yet about their “parenting philosophy," Sherri shared: “Who I am as a parent is still emerging. My primary goal is to protect Jordan's image of himself. I want him to understand himself as a limitless spiritual being and that he can be, do, and have whatever he wants in life."

That probably sounds pretty familiar to those of us who are parents!

And like most parents, she's figuring this parenting gig out as she goes. “I don't consciously know how to teach him that," she added. “So, I pray for guidance each night for the wisdom and humility to do what is best for him."

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

Keep Reading Show less

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."