During a routine checkup, Tonya Dennis’ doctor recommended she get a colonoscopy. Colon cancer rates are higher in African Americans and Dennis had a family history; her grandmother had colon cancer when she was in her sixties.

Going in

Dennis, now 51, underwent the procedure in 2011. She was surprised to learn she had a rectal tumor and was diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer. Dennis had radiation, surgery and a temporary colostomy bag, which was later removed, and chemotherapy.

“I’ve been cancer-free and it’s been four years since my last chemo treatment,” says Dennis, who’s married with two children and lives in South Carolina.

Sibling screening

Dennis’ doctors urged her to have other family members tested. That meant her brother, Reverend Roland Cooper in New Jersey, needed to get checked. But Cooper, now age 49, was dealing with heart disease at the time, so he waited to get tested. Then when he had a colonoscopy, results showed Stage 2 colon cancer.

FAMILY TIE: At the urging of his sister, Tonya, who had just overcame her own colon cancer, Cooper got tested and found that he and his sister were more alike than he thought, as he now faced Stage 2 colon cancer.

“I was thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’” says Cooper, who had surgery to remove the cancer, but also had heart complications and had to be revived two times during the procedure. After treatment, including six months of chemo, the married father of two has been in remission for a few years.

Not taboo

“We cannot stress enough how important it is to get tested,” says Cooper, who, like his sister, never had cancer symptoms. Nowadays, the siblings are fighting the stigma of cancer by talking about it in the community and within their family.

“It’s like a big secret, but it shouldn’t be,” Dennis says. “If we’re related by blood, we should know Uncle Joe died of colon cancer or Aunt Mary died of breast cancer.”