Fatal Inheritance. By Scott Holter.

When Sheri Mayer flew to her parents' South Dakota home in 1992, it was a bittersweet homecoming. The occasion was Mother's Day, and it was going to be the last one for her mom, who was losing her battle with pancreatic cancer.

What Mayer didn't realize was that in less than a decade, she would watch her older brother die from the same disease—and then face a life-or-death choice herself.

Sheri Mayer. Photo by Dathan (Dave) Devnich.

Sheri Mayer. Photo by Dathan (Dave) Devnich.

Mayer's family seemed to be under a biological curse. Pancreatic cancer cut her mother's life short at age 54. Seven years later, her brother started suffering severe stomach pains. In April 1999 he was treated for an ulcer, but recurring pains sent him back to his doctor. That September, a CT scan revealed a three-inch mass on the tail of his pancreas. Three months later, at the age of 44, he was dead.

It was Mayer's second encounter with a vicious killer. Pancreatic cancer is a virtual death sentence—of the 29,000 Americans diagnosed this year, 28,900 will die within 12 months. While lung cancer kills the most Americans, pancreatic cancer ranks fourth in U.S. deaths due to cancer. Early symptoms include, but are not limited to, stomach pain, jaundice and weight loss. Extremely lethal, it is resistant to both chemotherapy and radiation, and usually invades other vital organs by the time it is discovered.

"Before he died, I was able to sit down with my brother and his wife, and I made them a promise to have my own pancreas checked out," Mayer remembers. But the medical information she was receiving was confusing. "At the time, all we were hearing from doctors was that it was not a genetic disease like breast cancer or colon cancer."

Living in Wenatchee, Mayer, now 42, was well connected to the local medical community, since she was a lab technician at the Wenatchee Valley Clinic. Early in 2000, just weeks after her brother died, a Wenatchee oncologist uncovered an article about a hereditary form of pancreatic cancer, and showed it to Mayer.

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