Doing cartwheels: How T-cell therapy saved my life

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By Nicho Bourque

I guess it's unusual to see a patient doing cartwheels down a hallway at MD Anderson. But after seeing my scans, which indicated that the treatment I'd received for metastatic melanoma was starting to work, it seemed like the right thing to do.

That was three years ago.

Today, I feel the same way because my tests show no signs of cancer activity.

Becoming famous, thanks to a clinical trial

I remember how excited I was on a post-treatment visit to my oncologist, Nicholas Papadopoulos, M.D., when I saw that the tumors in my lungs were shrinking. That's when I did cartwheels.

Later, I learned that I was rather famous in the Melanoma Medical Oncology Department for the entertainment I provided, which was apparently a first.

But maybe it wasn't too unexpected, as I'd already scored a big first by then. I was the first MD Anderson clinical trial patient to receive a new form of adoptive T-cell therapy, called T-cell therapy with dendritic cells, on January 30, 2009.

I remember all the doctors and technologists came to watch the administration of the cells -- first the T-cells, then the dendritic. I felt like a movie star, but I was missing my lipstick.

Actually, that evening, I was the focus of attention at two big gatherings that started at the exact same time -- 6 p.m. -- in two different places. There was this one, being held at MD Anderson in Houston, and another one, a fundraising party that was being held for me in Lake Charles, La.

I can't say it was a party where I was, though. Shortly after the treatment started, I began having tremors and felt very cold, even though I must've had four blankets on top of me.

How my journey with melanoma started

It all started in September 2007, when my dermatologist in Lake Charles sent me for a biopsy after noting a suspicious-looking mole growing under the nail of one of the fingers on my right hand. When we learned it was melanoma, she immediately sent me to MD Anderson, where the end of that finger was surgically removed.

Follow-up tests showed there was no other cancer in my body. I was instructed to have X-rays of my lungs every 4 months afterward.

In September 2008, I learned that the melanoma had metastasized to my lungs. I was assigned to the care of Dr. Papadopoulos, who gave me eight treatment options. I asked him: "If I were your daughter, where should we start?"

He said the first thing would be interleukin-2 (IL-2) treatments, as approximately 20% of patients respond to this. I did two rounds of IL-2. Some of the side effects of IL-2 are severe tremors, massive weight gain, severe nausea and blurred vision. I believe I experienced them all.

Unfortunately, IL-2 did not work for me. The next option was adoptive T-cell (or TIL) therapy.

I understood there was no guarantee that T-cells would grow in the laboratory from a tumor that they wanted to remove from my right lung. I was chosen to also have dendritic cells removed from my blood, which would boost the T-cells that would be infused into my system.

I knew I was in good hands, and it was a risk my husband and I had faith in taking.

Watching the tumors shrink
The tumor and the dendritic cells were removed in November 2008. Around Christmas, we learned that the millions of cells needed for this therapy had grown to billions in the lab, and that my TIL treatment was being scheduled.

In January, I checked into the hospital and begin my first week of chemotherapy. After the chemo came the TIL treatments. Then I started IL-2 treatments.

During the process, I lost my hair and about 10 pounds. On the upside, minus the hair loss, my appearance suggested it had all been a walk in the park.

After completing the IL-2 treatment, I returned every 3 months to have scans of my lungs. I literally watched the tumors begin to shrink away.

Today, 3 years later, I'm living cancer-free.

1 Comment

Thank you for sharing your story!! My son has primary malignant melonoma of central nervous system! He had brain surgery may 14 followed by proton radiation . Prognosis we were given was not good in ft worth but the md Anderson team gave us a prognosis of guarded! Giving us much hope! Glad your story has been a success ! That is awesome!!

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