Sunday, February 5, 2017


Joan Lunden visted the National Institutes of Health early in January. She interviewed me and The Guy (together, because I am a big chicken) on my 10th follow-up post TIL therapy.

Here's the Today Show segment (thanks, Maia!):

apheresis. It's not as fun as it looks.

This web page answers some questions about TIL therapy. It includes a link (see item 5) to start the application process too!

Here's a promo clip for the sake of posterity:

Monday, December 12, 2016


Welcome to the 100th post.
Today is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe! I have a special devotion to Mary under that title. The words she spoke to Juan Diego in 1531 gave me courage in 2014, when I learned that chemo had failed me. "Do not fear this sickness...," she said to Juan, referring to his uncle. I believe those words are meant for all of us.

I am humbled and honestly a bit overwhelmed by the attention that is coming my way because of the recent article in the NEJM. Other outlets have picked up the story, and it has been a little crazy for the past couple of days.

I am thrilled for the scientists and other medical staff whose work has been recognized in this public way. My greatest hope is that they will continue to see more and more successes in immunotherapy. The men and women who worked on my case are much more deserving of the kindness and attention that I am now receiving--I was just trying to stay alive, as any one of us would do. The authors of the NEJM article--and many others who were not named--have my ongoing and deep respect. In truth they had it long before the results of my case were known to anyone--even them.

I am so grateful to everyone who prayed for me, and especially those who shared the story with others and asked them to pray, too. In the Christmas letter that I wrote in 2014, just after learning that my case was considered terminal, I wrote:

I joyfully anticipate the day when we'll all "be amazed and glorifying God", saying together, just as the evangelist recounted, “We have never seen anything like this.”  Mark 2:12

Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Follow-up #9

My scans were good! The radiology report included the word, "unremarkable" a total of five times. That is a record number of times for me.

When a radiologist deems an organ "unremarkable" it means that no evidence of injury or disease is seen on the scan. It is one of those DoctorSpeak words that mean something completely different to the uninitiated.

Question: Who wants to be "unremarkable"

Answer: Cancer patients

Overshadowing this visit, sadly, was news that my friend and fellow cancer patient, D., had passed away suddenly. We had made plans to meet at NIH this week. Our visits overlapped, just as they had last winter. We were in contact weekly--often daily--for over a year. It didn't make sense. She was supposed to be visiting NIH for harvest surgery and scans...


Consistent with the roller-coaster theme of this visit (the highs were as extreme as the lows) The Guy met with me at my clinic appointment. He confirmed that the New England Journal of Medicine will be publishing my case. He also told me that I am "an historic figure in medicine".


Also this trip, I said good-bye to my dear Lab Guru. He has exhausted every extension that The Guy could arrange. I am confident that he will continue to do great things in his very own lab, just as he did during his time at NIH. I look forward to the opportunity to visit his new digs one day (and hopefully not for the purpose of apheresis).

Finally, a story of hope. Tonight, a friend on 3NW at NIH awaits her TIL with sheer joy (and maybe some fatigue after the conditioning chemo). It will happen soon! I pray she sees success. I believe that she will!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Follow-Up #8

We are home from another follow-up at NIH. It was all good news! The clinic meeting, for the first time, was boring. My scans showed nothing new, and nothing growing. I won't be scanned again for four months. Woo! I can live (literally, ha!) with boring follow-ups.

A highlight of this visit:  I got to meet a fellow patient who became a fast friend. I have high hopes for her, for great success with this trial. She's as curious (maybe moreso!) as I am about all things TIL, and our visit slipped away too quickly. We will meet again!

News:  The Lab Guru has submitted an article about my case to a journal. I hope to have more news on that later.

Another highlight: Visiting with my Top 3. Two docs, and a nurse. So happy they were all available!

If you're interested in enrolling in the TIL trial, the link is here.
A recent post on how cell therapy works is here.

Under "Highlights" on the right side bar, you'll find a link labeled "Key Posts" which can serve as a short-cut to navigating the blog for particular steps in my cancer Riot.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sneaky Tumor

Breaking News!
The Lab Guru shared some stunning information about the non-responding, sneaky tumor that was surgically removed three months ago. After analyzing it, he now has a theory about why that tumor progressed in spite of TIL therapy! He cautioned that the results haven't been fully proven yet.

First, I want to cover how immunotherapy did work to kill many tumors.
Disclaimer 1: I am neither a doctor nor a scientist.
Disclaimer 2: What follows is my understanding of the details of my own case.

Many Thanks to the brilliant doctors and scientists at NIH who answered loads of questions at virtually every visit (and between times, too!) with patience and competence.

What worked:
Six tumors in my lungs are now dead, dead, all the way dead. They were killed by my immune system! Killer T-cells infiltrated my tumors to seek and destroy cells that harbored the baddest bad guy. This was possible in part because I inherited a hero HLA allele. It makes a particular protein molecule that worked in concert with killer T-cells to eliminate almost every tumor. HLA has the ability to mark cells that are "broken". Its job is to grab stuff from inside cells, bind it, and then present that stuff outside, on the cell surface.

More on the good guys, later! The villain in my case is a mutation to a gene called KRAS (KAY rass). The stuff that HLA enlisted to mark my tumor cells for destruction are actually pieces of mutated KRAS proteins (peptides). KRAS itself is vital to our cells, but when mutations happen, trouble begins.

Killer T-cells can't peer inside a cancer cell (or any other kind) to see what's going on there, but the HLA lives there. If a cell becomes deranged, as happens in cancer, HLA will grab its evidence (the peptide) that something is way wrong, and thrust it outside the cell while still holding it in its grasp. This is the only way that a killer T-cell can sense its target; it must be bound to an HLA molecule on the surface of a cell.

Hundreds of types of HLA alleles exist, but each person inherits only a few. Each type creates a molecule that has a unique binding surface. Think of molecule-sized Lego bricks--if the peptide can snap together with the HLA molecule, the two form a complex. When this happens, the peptide gets swiftly escorted to the surface, and the courier (HLA) announces to the world outside the cell, "Look what I found!"

Unlike Lego bricks, not all peptides will fit with all HLA molecules. Some won't fit with any. But, happily, it was found that for the mutation that I had, and the HLA type that I inherited, the two did fit together and HLA was able to bind the criminal and set it up for possible detection (and execution!) by my immune system.

Another layer of complexity:
Note the use of the word "possible" above. Just because the tumor cell, thanks to HLA, had the ability to present the mutation to my immune system, it was no guarantee that my immune system could recognize it. Killer T-cells are the immune system's soldiers, but they are highly specific in what they "see." Most types, it seems, are blind to cancer cells.

Each T-cell type is capable of recognizing only one particular antigen (bad guy), which is often referred to as its "target." T-cells sense their target with receptors (TCRs), which are the embodiment of programmed randomness. We each have millions of unique TCRs. Each one is highly specific to its target and to no other. Because TCRs are so hyper-focused, we need lots and lots of varieties of them if we are to remain safe from the constant onslaught of incalculable numbers of viruses, bacteria, and even cancer cells. Lucky for me (understatement!) my body produces a few different types of  T-cells whose target is the baddest bad guy, and I inherited an HLA type that has the ability to show the bad guy to the killer T-cell. When the killer T-cell connects with its target, the HLA-bound peptide, it sends a signal to the tumor cell to self-destruct! Also, when a T-cell finds its target, it replicates itself and can go on to find and kill more tumor cells. Thanks to the Lab Guru's expertise, 30 million of my mutation-specific T-cells were expanded to 148 billion. These are the cells that comprised my TIL therapy. These are the cells that killed six known tumors in my lungs.

Tumors are a collection of cells that have lost at least one important capacity that normal cells have, and that is the ability to die. As tumors evolve, mutations accumulate. Sometimes, they'll mutate in a way that gives them an advantage over the immune system.

So, what about that seventh, insidious, tumor?
What the Lab Guru discovered about the recalcitrant tumor is that it was missing one copy--healthy cells have a pair--of Chromosome 6. Chromosome 6 is where the HLA genes live! Since one copy of the chromosome was still there, the theory is that the hero HLA allele must've resided on the copy of the chromosome that went missing. The other chromosome of the pair most-likely did not include that particular allele.

The Sneaky Tumor's Game:
Any tumor cell that was absent the hero HLA was essentially cloaked from my immune system. The killer T-cells could no longer sense their target (even though it was still present) because the hero HLA--the thing with the ability to display the bad guy--was gone! Any cells that were missing that particular Chromosome 6 (either the one from Mom, or the one from Dad) now had an advantage that would help them survive. When they multiplied, those new cancer cells, too, were missing a copy of Chromosome 6. Killer T-cells wouldn't kill those cells, because without that particular HLA complex, the T-cells had no target.

How's that for Science?! "Amazing" doesn't come close.

The End, A Surgeon's Knife:
Similar to the way cancer didn't eliminate just the gene that threatened it but the entire chromosome the gene resided on, my surgeon didn't just excise the sneaky tumor--he removed the entire lung lobe it resided in.
It was a medical necessity to remove the entire lobe, but also something more: Poetic Justice.

Read the Lab Guru's article for the NEJM about my case here.
My friend Tom Marsilje, medicinal chemist/blogger has a unique way of explaining things. Read his take on my case here.
Joan Lunden interviewed me and The Guy for the Today show. Sneak peak on FaceBook here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


Last Friday was the anniversary of "Cell Day". I sent my husband out for a Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Cake just like the one they gave me on the day of the transfusion.

On Sunday we packed up the kids and headed for Frankenmuth, where I was registered to participate in a 5K Walk. That evening, I raised a glass to toast my esteemed immunotherapy fellow, who soon would be turning over my case to someone else. I chose a drink that he likes best. (This was less of a sacrifice than I was expecting!)

We watched fireworks with our kids, and some dear friends. Our youngest was enthralled by the spectacular explosions and declared his appreciation (loudly) after almost every round. As the smoke from the finale cleared, he announced in the darkness of the night that it had been "the best day of (his) life".

The 5K took place the following morning. I was nervous! It seemed to me that all of my health problems began after I ran a 5K in 2011.

Maybe 5K races are bad luck!

My oldest daughter and my husband accompanied me. They kept me to a challenging-enough pace for me, but one slow enough for them to chat effortlessly with each other. Neuropathy in my feet (from stupid FOLFOX) caused some pain, and my lungs...well, they did OK. I wasn't breathing like I felt I needed (wanted) to, but I was breathing adequately, apparently. I could not chat! My lungs would let me walk, or talk, but not both. We walked at about 3.5 mi/h and I finished in 51 minutes.

In movies sometimes a dramatic moment is depicted as happening in slow-motion. That is what happened to me at the finish line. In slow-motion, I saw my foot hit the mark, and it felt like a literal weight had lifted. I could almost hear the woosh as it flew off my shoulders. I've never experienced anything like it before.

When I crossed over the finish line, it felt like a new beginning.

Monday, June 20, 2016


Tonight, which is Father's Day in the U.S., we attended the graduation party of the son of dear friends. Last year, also on Father's Day, we attended a graduation party hosted by other dear friends. The difference is that after last year's party, Patrick and I headed straight to the airport. I would be inpatient at NIH starting that night for what would be a nearly month-long stay.

"No tears! No tears!" my friend had said as we left the party. She waved her hands in front of her eyes to keep them away. I did the same. We hugged and I almost made it out of there without crying. Then another friend joined us and I crumpled into a teary mess. We hugged as we cried. They promised me their prayers as I left the building.

My friend's husband called to me just as I reached the parking lot. "Come back! I didn't get to say good-bye!" I did, and cried some more. He promised to send me excruciatingly bad puns every day that I was away (and he did!). I told him that I loved his wife, and he said, "I do too!" and we laughed.

I got into the car then, and stared out the window, still crying. I have never felt so torn as I did that day, leaving my family and friends. Not only was I leaving the kids; I was also taking their Dad away. I felt tremendous guilt over that until I tried seeing the situation from his perspective. In his mind, being with me for as long as he could manage it was his duty, especially since the kids would have adult care-givers. "I have to take care of you," are the words he repeated so often, and always in a way that communicated, "I want to take care of you." He is a gift.

I thought about the risk involved in the clinical trial. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was my best option, but it made me sad to think that "coming back" might not be a part of this equation. I accepted the uncertainty, but I had to push thoughts of who I was leaving behind out of my mind and try to focus on what lie ahead.

A few days prior, Patrick and I had met with a lawyer to finally get a will in place. This was something we had planned on doing right after our wedding, but never did. As the years went by, one or the other of us would mention something like, "We should really make a will..." but that's as far as it went--just a suggestion. This time was different. This time the gravity of my health urgently demanded that we take action. Surprisingly, none of those preparations made me feel sad; instead I had a sense of well-being.

Driving away from that party though--that was hard.

By the time we arrived at the NIH that evening, it was pretty late. I met the night nurse, who smiled a lot and made sure every single thing was in order. She asked a bunch of questions, explained some of the mortifying practices I'd have to endure, and assured me that I would be well-cared for. Patrick left for the night. I tried to settle in. I had a big room facing the courtyard. I would have no roommate, unlike my previous visit. This was by design. Sharing a room could lead to sharing germs, and that is too big a risk for a neutropenic patient (which is what I'd be once the chemo did its thing).

It was Sunday, and the on-call immunotherapy fellow that night was the one who'd been assigned to my case from the beginning. I found this doctor to be a man of few words, but I was very happy to see a familiar face. I wished him a "Happy Father's Day", and asked how long he would remain on the service. I knew that the fellows were about to rotate out. He assured me that he'd be there on Cell Day. "What's the new guy like?" I wanted to know. He told me his name and instantly brightened. "You'll like him. He's a good guy." I knew that this was the extent of the information I'd be getting from him on that topic. I was uneasy with the knowledge that the one doctor that I was familiar with would be leaving so soon after I arrived. We discussed upcoming events briefly then said good-night.

Then--just as tonight--it was well past midnight by the time I got to bed. I was excited about finally being there, and almost couldn't believe that it was really happening. Monday morning would start early with scans and other procedures. I was on a carefully planned protocol now. I prayed that every step of the way would go as well as it possibly could.