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Beating the odds
63-year-old cancer survivor Tom Sherry wins 2020 Platteville men’s club championship
Multiple-time cancer survivor Tom Sherry (left) poses with best friend Rick Miles after defeating Miles 2-up in the championship match of this year’s Platteville Golf & Country Club Championship tournament Aug. 23. Sherry defeated Miles with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole.

Tom Sherry loves three things in life above all else — his fiancé Audrey Caygill, his grandchildren and playing golf with his friends. 

According to Sherry that love saved his life.

Sherry is a multiple-time cancer survivor and now a two-time men’s club champion at Platteville Golf and Country Club.

Sherry, 63, was too ill to play in the Platteville Club Championship tournaments in 2018 and 2019 after multiple rounds of chemotherapy treatments to battling esophageal cancer.  

This summer, Sherry not only was well enough to compete, but he won four  straight 18-hole rounds of match play to win this year’s tournament Aug. 22–23.

Sherry defeated Lancaster’s Rick Miles, one his best friends in the world, with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to claim his second career club championship at the Platteville G&CC 2-up.

Tom falls in love with golf

Sherry was born and raised just up the road in Lancaster.

He began his life long love affair with the game of golf as a 13-year-old teenager.

“I got involved with a group of three other guys and myself and we started playing almost every day in the summer when I was 13,” said Sherry. “One of those guys was my great friend Rick Miles.”

Sherry went on to play high school golf for the Flying Arrows. He was the individual champion at the 1975 Southern 8 Conference championships as a senior and led Lancaster to conference and regional team titles that year as well. Sherry and the Flying Arrows didn’t advance past sectionals, but during his final three years on the varsity golf team, Lancaster went undefeated, winning every regular season match it played, with the exception of one tie. 

Sherry went on to play college golf at UW–Platteville, where he was a three-year letterman in 1977, 1978 and 1979.

“I didn’t really have a tremendous career at UW–Platteville,” he said. “I finished third at a couple tournaments, but never won any. It was only the WIAC, but it was still a lot better competition than high school.”

In the summer of 1980, Sherry won his first local club championship at Lancaster, a two-day 36-hole stroke play tournament. 

“When I was just out of college, I won a Prairie du Chien Invitational, finished second at the Dodgeville Invitational a couple times and second once at a Lancaster Invitational once,” said Sherry. “They don’t really have those kinds of tournaments much anymore.

“Then I got a job in 1982 with Anchor Bank in Madison and moved away and didn’t play a whole lot of golf for a while.”

Sherry became a member at The House on the Rock Resort (formerly The Springs) in Spring Green in 1988 and remained a member for eight years.

In the early 1990s Sherry began playing a regular Thursday round with his brother Jim of Lancaster, Miles and Emmett Terwilliger Jr., also of Lancaster. 

“The four of us started playing 36 holes every Thursday at a different course,” said Sherry. “We walked and carried our own clubs. A lot of times we would play 45 or 54 holes.

“Every year, Rick and I, along with Dave Harper and Marty Thole, also traveled to Myrtle Beach for the Thanksgiving holiday for a week and would play 36 holes a day. Later on, my brother Jim, Rick and I started going to Myrtle Beach in the spring. We went with a group of eight guys and usually played 36 holes a day for a week.”

In 1995, the Sherry brothers, Miles and Terwilliger all became members at the Platteville Golf and Country Club and kept the 36-hole Thursday tradition going, playing mostly at Platteville from then on, with an occasional road trip to a neighboring course.

In 1999, Sherry was looking to relocate to Grant County permanently to be closer to his ailing mother. 

He accepted a promotion and became the branch manager at Platteville’s Anchor Bank location.

In 2001, Sherry joined the Platteville Golf and Country Club Board of Directors and served as club president in 2003. He also won his first Platteville club championship in the summer of 2003.

The Platteville men’s club championship is two-day match-play tournament played every August. The 16 lowest handicap members of the club play for the men’s club championship. The 18-hole first and second rounds are played on Saturday, with the 18-hole semifinals and championship matches played on Sunday.

There are also other club championship flights for higher handicap golfers at Platteville G&CC. 

“I played basically every year since I became a member in 1995, but never it won it until 2003,” said Sherry. “2003 was also the year my mom [Margaret “Peg” Sherry] passed. She passed away about a month and a half before the club championship. I always wondered if she had something to do with me winning it that year and I like to think she that she did.”

Over the years, Sherry thinks he reached the semifinals eight to 10 times and the championship match maybe a half dozen times.

This summer, after three years of cancer treatments he won his second club championship at Platteville G&CC.

“My sister Susan passed away Feb. 14, one day after my birthday, and I wonder if she had something to do with me winning it this time,” Sherry added.

Tom meets Audrey

Tom Sherry met Audrey Caygill in the summer of 2002 at the golf course. 

“Apparently, I gave her a ride in my golf cart back to her car in the parking lot, and much to my chagrin, and Audrey’s consternation, I don’t remember that,” said Sherry. “But I do remember she was hot. And not only hot, but she played golf; definitely a win–win!”

The pair formed an instant bond over the game of golf. Sherry proposed Friday, Aug. 13, 2004 and she said yes.

“I have a thing for the number 13,” said Sherry. “My 13th birthday was on Friday the 13th. My parents’ 13th wedding anniversary was on a Friday the 13th and both of Audrey’s parents were born on the 13th.”

The two remain unmarried 16 years later in part because Caygill was the primary caregiver for her elderly mother, who lived with her in Gratiot for a number of years until she passed away in August 2019.

“We were just never able to set up a house together,” said Sherry. “Audrey was also married before and has two kids who have grown up and had kids of their own. So I never had my own kids, but now I am a papa. Audrey’s kids were so welcoming of me. 

“What we are doing now seems to be working, so why would we mess with it?”

The elusive hole-in-one

Despite all of these years of playing golf, since he was a 13-year-old beginner in 1970, Sherry never got a hole in one. 

“With all the holes I had played in my life it was nearly statistically impossible,” joked Sherry. “I found this chart that said how many holes a golfer with a 5 handicap like myself would expect to play before getting a hole-in-one. I added up the number of par 3s I had probably played in my life and figured out I was way overdue.

“My brother Jim has seven holes-in-one, Rick had four and Emmitt has like six.”

Then, in a bit of a bittersweet moment for Sherry, Caygill recorded her first hole-in-one Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017 while playing in a women’s Southwest Wisconsin and Northern Illinois Invitational at Lancaster. 

“Audrey didn’t even start playing golf until she was in her 40s,” said Sherry. “Previously, she played softball and was pretty dang good, but she hurt her knee, so she switched to golf. She became pretty good pretty quickly and even won the Platteville women’s club championship a few times herself. Of course I was happy for her hole-in-one but couldn’t help thinking about all my near misses.”

Just two days later, playing in his regular Tuesday league at the Platteville Golf and Country Club, Sherry finally recorded that coveted first hole-in-on when he aced the 142-yard, 7th hole. 

“I didn’t believe the guys I was playing with because I didn’t even see it,” said Sherry. “We were hitting into the sun and I couldn’t see where it landed. They said, ‘it’s in.’ I said oh, I have been here before. I won’t believe it until we get up there and see it in the cup. I have hit the bottom the cup in the air, bounced tee shots off the flag, lipped some out and had others literally hanging over the hole. I had been so close, so many times. But sure enough, this one went in. 

“I immediately called Audrey from the tee box on hole number eight and she didn’t believe me. She said, ‘yeah right, you are just saying that because I just had one.”

Tom’s cancer diagnosis

Just days after that joyous first ace, Sherry was on the receiving end of a much different phone call from Dr. James Yurcek.

The previous week, Sherry had a procedure called an endoscopy- — the insertion of a micro camera in a long, thin tube down his throat — to explore the inside of his esophagus. 

“I was having trouble swallowing, and I first noticed it in May or June,” said Sherry. “But I put it off and put it off. I finally went to Dr. Carr in late July because I had a back injury. While I was there, I said by the way I am having trouble swallowing too. So, he scheduled the endoscopy to see what was going on. 

“Dr. Yurcek called that week after the procedure and told me to come in. He said, ‘I know why you are having trouble swallowing. You have cancer.’”

Yurchek explained to Sherry that he had a shooter marble-size mass at the junction of my esophagus and stomach; the diagnosis was esophageal cancer.

“For years, I had acid reflux, so I was always popping Zantac,” said Sherry. “I also smoked for 40 years so that didn’t help anything, but most likely it was caused by acid reflux. My doctor said some people with bad acid reflux develop cancer and others do not. I was an unlucky one. 

“I just remember thinking after my diagnosis that God just gave me a parting gift with that hole-in-one.”

The diagnosis was also a major blow to Caygill, who has seen more than her fair share of cancer. 

“Audrey’s oldest brother, youngest brother and a 20-year-old niece have all passed away from cancer,” said Sherry. “Every family is affected by cancer, but Audrey has some really back luck with it.”

Six weeks later, Sherry began chemotherapy and radiation treatments in Madison. He received 23 radiation treatments, one every weekday for nearly five weeks, as well as a once-a-week chemotherapy treatment simultaneously during those five weeks to try and shrink the tumor in preparation for surgery to remove the tumor.

Just before treatments, a PET scan also revealed Sherry had hairline fractures on a rib and a vertebra in his back. 

“My brother Jim drove me to Madison for my treatments quite a bit, and Audrey and occasionally other friends,” said Sherry. “I have so many friends. I never thought about it throughout my life, how many people would step for me in a bad spot like this. I am one lucky dude to have the type of friends I have, and to have so many of them.”

The chemo and radiation treatments were effective and the tumor had shrunk from the size of a large marble to the size of a pencil eraser.

Sherry tried to quit smoking when he got his diagnosis in August, but said, “I didn’t quite make it, but the surgery stopped me for good.”

On Dec. 17, 2017, Sherry had an esophagectomy at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, the main surgical treatment for esophageal cancer. 

During an open esophagectomy, the surgeon removes all or part of the esophagus through an incision in the neck, chest or abdomen.

“They cut an incision in my neck and cut the top of the esophagus out,” said Sherry. “Then, they opened me sternum to belly button and cut off the top of stomach and the rest of the esophagus. They then stretched my stomach and reattached it to the bottom of my throat.

“I now have to sleep at a 30-degree angle because I no longer have the flap on the top of my esophagus to keep stomach acid in.”

Sherry was in the hospital over Christmas and had a few ups and downs in 2018.

The first major down was a PET scan in May of 2018, which revealed they did not get all the cancer. In fact, it had metastasized and spread to multiple ribs and multiple vertebrae in his back. 

Sherry believes it is possible that the fractured rib and vertebrae the previous September were not fractures at all, but the beginning of cancer in those bones.

“The odds for having esophagus cancer and coming out the other end are OK,” said Sherry. “There is about a 60 or 70 percent survival rate for five years. But once it metastasized I knew it is not good at all. 

“My oncology doctor would often ask me if I wanted to know the odds of survival for that type of cancer, but I always said no. It didn’t really matter to me what the odds were. I asked if anyone had survived and he said yes. That was good enough for me. I said, then I could survive too and that’s just how I had to look at it. My suspicion was that it’s in the 10 to 15 percent range for survival rate for five years.”

Sherry also found out during the May PET Scan, that he also had sacral chordoma, a slow-growing cancer at the base of his spine, near his tailbone. 

“This cancer is basically something you are born with,” he said. “It is extraordinarily rare with around 300 cases diagnosed in the United States each year, whereas there are roughly 300,000 cases of esophageal cancer diagnosed each year in the U.S. Chordoma grows very, very slowly and it is hard to see on scans. Most of the time it is diagnosed way too late.

“There was not a lot they wanted to do because, in my opinion, they didn’t think I was going to live very long. They also may have thought that because the chordoma was so slow growing I would pass from the esophageal cancer first, but then started pushing up on my rectum and became a problem.”

Sherry’s treatment for metastatic esophageal cancer and the chordoma was more chemotherapy; this time every two weeks for 10 months. Treatment began in August 2018.

“When it started, I would have four or five pretty bad days, then three or four days where it was OK, then five or six days where I would feel pretty good. But by then it was time to have another treatment.

“But as you go through it, that reverses and you don’t have very many good days anymore. By the end I was having eight or nine pretty horrible days and only a couple days where I felt just OK.”

In June 2019, another scan found a spot on the bottom of Sherry’s adrenal gland and two more spots on his lung. The chemotherapy wasn’t working, but Sherry was given a reprieve.  

A blood test revealed good markers that Sherry would possibly have a good response to immunotherapy drugs.

A month later, after the chemotherapy had cleared his system, Sherry began immunotherapy in Madison. Every three weeks he was given a drug called Keytruda.

“Keytruda is a new class of drugs, that uses your own immune system to fight the cancer,” said Sherry. “I’ll explain it like my oncologist did; normally your immune cells go around your body to shake hands with your normal cells using a secret handshake to make sure they are supposed to be there. But cancer fools your immune system by mimicking the secret handshake. The immunotherapy drugs like Keytruda retrain your immune system to have a different secret handshake that cancer doesn’t know about. When the cancer cells can’t replicate the new secret hand shake, your immune cells can begin attacking them.”

Another scan in August 2019 revealed Sherry still had the spot on his adrenal gland, but he continued with the immunotherapy.

Golf keeps Tom going

During the two years of treatment, Sherry still played golf, just not as often or for as long. No more 36-hole days, and he no longer played in league. He couldn’t commit to league play not knowing how he might feel each week, but still made time to play with friends on Tuesdays, Thursdays and usually once on the weekend. 

“I know it sounds crazy that I kept playing through treatments, but golf was that one thing I really looked forward to,” explained Sherry. “It kept me going. I looked forward to being around Audrey and my grandkids and playing golf with my friends from the course. I was weakened, but I could still do it.

The 5-foot-7 Sherry, who weighed 170 pounds at his heaviest prior to cancer said he lost nearly 50 pounds from treatments and was down to 122 pounds just one year ago.

“After the surgery I could only eat very small amounts at a time,” he said. “For years, I used to skip breakfast, eat a light lunch and then pound a big dinner. I wasn’t used to eating much throughout the day. Now, I have to start eating right when I wake up because I can barely get 200 calories in at a time.

“It’s also very hard to eat because I am no longer hungry. The hunger signals come from the top of your stomach and I no longer have those. But we were at a wedding in the summer of 2019 and I saw my reflection in a church window. I looked terrible. My shirt was just hanging off me. My arms and legs were so skinny and my face was sunken in. I looked like someone dying of cancer. I decided right then that I had to actively start eating on a schedule.” 

In a matter of a couple months, Sherry gained 10 pounds.

The good news

In December 2019 Sherry had another PET scan. He was dreading the results.

“My scans had never been good news in the past,” he said. “But this time was different. The doctor said the spot on my adrenal gland appeared to be gone or at least it was so small he could no longer see it. The same thing happened on my lung. It also appeared that the cancer on my ribs did not get bigger and had not spread anywhere else. It stabilized and it appeared the chordoma stabilized as well.”

Sherry optimistically continued on with the immunotherapy. 

Another scan this May was again good news.  

Again, there was nothing noticeable on the lung or adrenal gland. The cancer in the ribs was still stabilized and the chordoma had actually reduced in size.

Sherry had also gained another 12 pounds in less than a year and is currently 147 pounds.

Tom enters 2020 club championship

Sherry continued to golf throughout the summer of 2020 ever during the COVID-19 pandemic and continued to get stronger. He also played well and was a 4.3 handicap.

“I ride alone in my cart, wear a mask when we are in the clubhouse and always try to stay six or eight feet away from others,” said Sherry. “Even though I played with an older group of guys that might be considered high risk, we all are very cautious to take care of ourselves and social distance.”

In early August, Sherry got a call from Platteville G&CC club president and the club tournament director Greg Faherty. 

“He asked if I wanted to play in the 2020 league championships and I said yes. I thought I could play 36 holes in a day this year,” said Sherry. “I have to take pain pills Oxycodone and long-acting morphine, but my dosage is way down and I can make it through a round much easier now. I also just missed that feeling of the competition and wanted to give it a try.

“During the first two years of my cancer, I did not feel healthy enough to compete in 2018 and 2019. I just couldn’t play 36 holes in a day. I just wasn’t up to it. I actually signed up in 2019, but I decided I wasn’t well enough to compete and didn’t feel it would be fair to take a spot from someone else if I had to withdraw. So, I asked Rob Udelhofen to fill in for me. And he ended up winning the whole thing.” 

Sherry entered this year’s club championship as the number two seed with the second-best handicap in the tournament. 

He defeated Platteville’s Brian Fritz in 14 holes, 5&4, in the opening round Saturday, Aug. 22. Later that day, he defeated Jason Simmons, 4&3 after tying the 15th hole to clinch the win. Sherry had been playing with Simmons’ foursome earlier in the day when Simmons birdied the 18th hole to tie his first round match against 7-seed David Bergmann, then birdied hole 1 to win in a playoff.

“I won that second round and I was like, holy crap, now I am going to have to play tomorrow,” said Sherry. “I don’t really play back-to-back days of golf anymore.”

The final four was Sherry, 6 seed Terry Busch, 4 seed Corey Moran and none other than Sherry’s old pal Rick Miles, the 8 seed who upset top-seeded Phil Swift in Saturday’s second round. All four played together during the semifinals.

Miles beat the 30-something Moran 5&4 with a marvelous round. 

“That was some of the best golf I have ever seen Rick play, and as you know I have seen him play a lot,” said Sherry.

In the other semifinal match, Sherry gained a four hole lead over Busch midway through the back nine, but Busch got two holes back to cut the deficit to 2-up with three holes to play. But Sherry won the 16th hole to end the match 3&2.

“So, now I am going to be playing my best friend who I have been playing golf with 50 years since we were 13 years old for the club championship,” said Sherry. “We are both 63 years old and have literally played more than a 1,000 rounds of golf together.

“I was exhausted, but I was feeling surprisingly okay. I was not taking my meds because I wanted to have a clear mind during the tournament, but the pain wasn’t too bad. I think I was running on adrenaline.”

The championship match

Miles, who is a four-time Platteville club champion, birdied the first hole to take an early lead. Sherry birdied hole 3 to even the match. 

Sherry also stuck an approach shot on Hole 6 and tapped in for birdie to go 2 up. The two tied the 7th, but Sherry gained a three-hole lead when Miles bogeyed the 8th.. Sherry bogeyed 9 to give a hole back, but was still 2-up at the turn.

Sherry kept playing consistent golf with three straight pars to begin the back nine, while Miles bogeyed 10 and 12. Sherry was 4-up with six holes to play, his fourth straight four-hole lead in the tournament.

“It was hot and I was sucking wind,” said Sherry. “I had played more golf in those two days, than I had in a long time.”

Sherry’s sensational round began to unravel with four straight bogeys on 13, 14, 15 and 16. 

“And I was hitting bad shots,” he said. Miles took advantage with pars on 13, 15, and 16 (he bogeyed 14) to cut the lead to 1-up with two holes to play.

“I am mad at this point,” said Sherry. “I know I am blowing it and I’m thinking I may never get this opportunity again. But I go up the tee on 17 and I make a great swing, right down the middle.” 

Miles also had a great drive and then hit his second shot to within 10 feet of the cup.

“My second shot had to go over and between some trees to get around the dogleg and I hit it absolute perfect to just outside of Rick’s shot, also about 10 feet away.

“I hit my putt and thought I made it. But it just missed right on high side. Rick had the same line and just missed left. Both tapped in for par to tie the hole, setting up a dramatic finish.

Miles teed off first and hit right of the fairway. Sherry got it in the middle but with a short drive. 

“We were playing the blue tees for this tournament,” said Sherry. “I am 63 years old now and always play from the shorter white tees. I was in the middle of the fairway but I was still 210 yards away. I barely hit the ball 200 yards now days.

“I took out my 3-wood and swung with everything I had, and I hit probably the best shot of my life under the circumstances. The ball landed on the green and rolled up to within 15 feet. I didn’t even think I could hit it that far anymore.”

Miles’ second shot came up short of the green. He chipped on but rolled past the hole by about 19 feet.

“At this point, I just need to nurse this thing up there and get a two-putt to win the tournament,” said Sherry. “I didn’t want to hit it too soft and leave myself a three or four foot putt, but I hit it a little harder than I wanted to. I thought it was definitely going to roll past, and I didn’t know how far. But it kept holding its line, holding its line and it disappeared and went in.”

Sherry had won his second club championship with a birdie on the 18th hole against his best friend.  

“I was so exhausted at that point,” he said. “The adrenaline was just gone after that putt. There were about 25 carts around with about 40 people watching. It was pretty neat. I am kind of a show off and love to have people watching me golf.

“But it was really hard to grasp it. It seemed so surreal. I came of the green and everybody was congratulating me. I was just stunned. I couldn’t believe I just did that. I looked at Audrey and asked, ‘did that just happen?’

“Rick said, ‘I would have loved to have won, but I think it makes a better story that you won.’” 

“I am not supposed to be here and I shouldn’t be doing what I am doing,” said Sherry. “I have had so many people praying for me. I am grateful for everything. Grateful that I can still be playing golf; grateful for my friends and brother, who has been my rock, and sister-in-law. And above all I am so grateful for Audrey. I told her that I really believe I am still around to be with her. I am so blessed.

“It is not fun. It is a tough haul, but you can’t make it through something like this if you don’t have something else to live for. I can’t really express what I feel to survive a cancer diagnosis and treatment and come out the other side to still be here and be able to do the things I love, especially play golf and even at a high level.”