Hutch News Stories

Told her cancer was incurable, a lymphoma patient pins her hopes on an immunotherapy clinical trial

Lymphoma patient Stephanie Florence of Lewiston, Idaho, meets with Fred Hutch's Dr. David Maloney for a checkup in April at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
Lymphoma patient Stephanie Florence of Lewiston, Idaho, meets with Fred Hutch's Dr. David Maloney for a checkup in April at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Robert Hood

It was in December of 2006. I was 34 and invincible. I knew I was sick, I knew something was wrong, but the diagnosis of cancer really was a shock. I was diagnosed Dec. 20, and I started chemotherapy Dec. 26.

Initially they told me that it was lymphoma, but they weren’t certain what type. I was still under the impression that even if you had a cancer diagnosis, you could have chemotherapy and potentially beat it. After all of the results and pathology came back, I found out that the type of lymphoma that I had — have — is considered incurable. I refused to accept it.

After I finished chemo … I researched everything I could find. According to my doctor, the cancer would come back. [What] clicked with me was being able to have something that could just target the cancer and not your healthy cells — I wanted some type of immunotherapy.

I had a scan in 2011 that showed something suspicious. That is when I sought out Fred Hutch.

I had done all of this research, through all of these years, and I kept seeing the same names. In my mind, there are these rock stars of lymphoma. And so I told my doctor, I’m going to go see either Dr. [David] Maloney or Dr. [Oliver] Press. I had seen Dr. Press’s and Dr. Maloney’s name on so many papers and knew that they were doing the most modern work in the disease.  Then I actually found out that Dr. Maloney was doing an immunotherapy trial [at Fred Hutch]. He was involved in that CAR [chimeric antigen receptor] T-cell trial.

[But Dr. Maloney at first] recommended against the trial. The pathology [report showed that] my disease had transformed and was aggressive. He wanted me to have [a blood stem cell] transplant. And I did. I had the transplant in 2014, and it was successful. But unfortunately, the results didn’t last.

I knew I wanted to do [the immunotherapy trial]. I got my T cells July 2 [2015].

Everything I had read had indicated [there would be] side effects. But it was a walk in the park — I did not have any side effects. I thought side effects meant the CAR T cells are in there fighting this cancer — so maybe they’re not working. I was biting my nails.

On July 29, I got my results. Oh, my gosh:  I was overjoyed.  It was the most emotional moment of my entire 10 years of lymphoma. Not only did it work, but it worked 100 percent.  I had a complete response. It was magical. It was a miracle.

I have always felt that for somebody like me — considered incurable — if I am going to get a miracle with modern medicine, it would come in the form of participating in a [clinical] trial. To beat the odds, I would have to do something different from what was traditionally offered. I knew that a trial would provide that chance for me.

There’s no way to know that I’m cured — it’s just too soon to know what the lasting results will be. But being able to participate in something like this – I can’t even say it’s life-changing. It’s too much of an understatement. I’m just so grateful for the chance to participate.

Some cancers are beatable. If you’re in a situation where your cancer is not, don’t give up hope. There is always a reason to be hopeful. There are times when it’s a really bad day, when things aren’t going right or you get bad lab results, and it can be a roller coaster of highs and lows. Just try and maintain. When I get a good scan report, I try not to be too excited about it because I know it can go the other way. I try to stay in the middle. I would just say [to others going through this], try to stay in the middle, and take it a day at a time.

But I’m not following my own advice now. I am celebrating. I am not going to worry about the next low. I am going to keep this high. I have earned it. After 10 years, I’ve earned it.

Every story matters. Help us build community by sharing your story.

Subscribe to RSS

RSS feeds are best viewed in browsers other than Chrome

Subscribe
Last Modified, August 21, 2019