Her life was transformed after she took a chance on an experimental therapy

Dr. Oliver Press (left) with Rita Lawrence and her husband Arlyn at a patient reunion in 2000.
Dr. Oliver Press (left) with Rita Lawrence and her husband Arlyn at a patient reunion in 2000. Photo courtesy Rita Lawrence

In 1984, Rita Lawrence’s local oncologist in Illinois delivered a diagnosis of lymphoma. It was the start of a difficult journey. After a year of chemotherapy, and two years of remission, the cancer came back, very aggressively. After three treatments, she and her doctors recognized the therapies were failing.

In July 1988, Rita received a call from a doctor she had consulted at the Mayo Clinic. The doctor told her about radioimmunotherapy, a new experimental strategy being developed by Dr. Oliver Press and colleagues at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In radioimmunotherapy, radioactive isotopes are ferried straight to cancer cells by molecules called antibodies that bind to specific molecular targets. The idea, which since has been translated into FDA-approved products, is to kill cancer cells with high doses of targeted radiation while sparing as many normal, healthy cells as possible. As Rita explains, the experimental treatment transformed her life:

The doctor felt I would be a great candidate for radioimmunotherapy, and asked if I would be interested in going. I said, “Absolutely — I don’t have anything to lose, because what we’re doing here is not working.”

I called Dr. Press, and we had some phone conversations, and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Seattle. I’d never been to Seattle. I had no idea what was in store for me when I got there. I just told friends and family, “I’m going to get this treatment, and I’ll be back in a few weeks, or days.” I had no idea.

The doctors in Seattle tried to explain to me what was going to happen. And it was like something in Star Wars. I thought, “What the hell have I gotten myself into here?” And I realized it wasn’t going to be a few days — it would be a few months. But it didn’t take long for me to decide this is what I have to do. I have to just put my life on hold and concentrate on this, because if I don’t, I’m not going to be here.

It was the early-on days of radioimmunotherapy, and it was my understanding that I was the fifth patient they had tried to work with. I so much wanted to help other people. If this was something that would help other people, I was happy to do it. Because I didn’t have a choice — I wasn’t going to make it otherwise.

At the time, I felt that everything Dr. Press did was going to work. I never once thought this is not going to work. … I have a lot of faith. I’m a spiritual person. I think it was a combination of being in the right place at the right time, and that there was a purpose in this, a reason why I was here. And he was just so down-to-earth. He was unlike any other doctor I had been to. I just felt very comfortable with him. … It felt like I was very connected with the whole team.

I’m just very grateful that I had the opportunity to go through this, because my daughter was going off to college, and I had a son who was in junior high. It was very tough on them. Very very tough on them. They used to call me, and we’d just hold the phone and cry. We couldn’t even talk, just hold the phone and cry at each other. My husband flew back and forth; he was running a business in Illinois. It seemed like whenever I would go in the hospital, he would go back home because he knew I was being taken care of. I was in and out of the hospital the whole three months.

The doctors had all of these test doses of the experimental drug they wanted to try me on, to see which one of those would work the best. Each time they tried me on an experimental dose, they penetrated the lymphoma lumps, like a needle biopsy. I had lumps everywhere: I had them under my arms, on my neck, in my groin, they were just everywhere. So they didn’t have any trouble finding something to needle-biopsy. Each time, they could tell things were looking up.

By the time I had my third experimental dose, I was already in remission. When they went in to do the biopsy, Dr. Press said it look like a balloon had collapsed.

After they did the treatment, I was kept in a lead-lined room because I was temporarily radioactive. I was in that room for about seven days, I think. No one could enter it. The team would always come around and talk to me at the door. My meals were all on Styrofoam; they were left outside the door and I had to go get them. Everything that I took in was considered hazardous waste — toothbrush, pajamas, everything. I had to collect my urine, and I couldn’t flush it, I had to collect it in the room. I was taught to do all my own vital signs. And each day, they would come in and measure me with a Geiger counter to see how ‘hot’ I was. My husband used to tease me that he was the first person he ever knew who had a wife who was ‘too hot to handle,’ and that I actually ‘glowed in the dark’ so he'd never have trouble spotting me.

Being in the lead-lined room was very soul-searching. It made you think about your life and things you need to change about your life. And what I was going to do different. It just put a whole new perspective on it. It sounds crazy, but I’m thankful I had cancer. Because it turned me into a different person. I look at life much differently now. I let go of some stressful situations I couldn’t fix — I couldn’t make them better, and I had to walk away from them. That was huge.

I tried to keep a sense of humor throughout the whole thing. Because it was so bizarre what I had to do. Even when I wasn’t in the hospital, I had to collect my urine; I carried that around in a shopping bag, and then turn it in so they could measure it. They had to measure everything. I do think attitude makes a huge difference: the will to live, the will to survive, not being depressed, trying to see the humor in it.

After the lead-lined room, they put back my bone marrow, which they had collected before the radioimmunotherapy. They were able to store my own marrow and then put it back to rescue me after my blood counts dropped down. It was like planting grass seed and waiting for the grass to grow. That took about three weeks for the bone marrow to come back to normal counts before I could come out of the hospital. After my counts came back up, I was able to come home, in November of that year.

After I went home, I just did follow-ups with my local doctor. I’ve been clean ever since. It’s a miracle. Every time after that when I talked to a doctor, they always said, “Do you know what a bullet you dodged?” And I said, “Yes, I sure do.”

It’s amazing that I had so much radiation but it didn’t hurt anything else. It only hurt the cancer. I suffered no consequences of any of it that I know of, all these years. I’ve got other issues, but nothing to do with the side effects or anything from that treatment.

When I look back now on that second time I’d gotten sick, after I relapsed, I remember just saying, “God’s trying to teach me something, I’m going to get it this time, whatever he’s trying to teach me.” I just went with that, and reevaluated everything.

Now, I’m in Phoenix, I run a business, a very successful business, and so many things — material things — just don’t matter to me anymore. None of that matters to me anymore. I’d rather give it away to somebody else and see the look on their face. I only have 12 employees, but this year I was able to give them all generous bonuses. That’s the new me. That wasn’t the ‘me’ before I got sick. This is something I evolved into later, with wanting to give back and wanting to help the less-fortunate.

Editor's note: Story based on an interview conducted Jan. 17, 2017.

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