Stephanie Florence, cellular immunotherapy patient

Research has given me my life back. I have always felt that for someone like me — considered incurable — 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.

I was 34 and felt invincible. I was happily married with a great family. I had very good balance at the time and served on the PTA. I knew something was wrong, but the diagnosis of cancer really was a shock. I was diagnosed December 20, 2006, with an incurable type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I started chemotherapy on Dec. 26, a day after Christmas.

Chemotherapy Treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. It may be given alone or with other treatments. Treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Chemotherapy may be given by mouth, injection, infusion or on the skin, depending on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. It may be given alone or with other treatments, such as surgery, radiation therapy or biologic therapy. Clinical trial A type of research study that tests how well new medical approaches work in people. These studies test new methods of screening, prevention, diagnosis or treatment of a disease. Lymphoma Cancer that begins in the cells of the immune system. There are two basic categories of lymphomas: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphomas. Cancer that begins in cells of the immune system. There are two basic categories of lymphomas. One is Hodgkin lymphoma, which is marked by the presence of a type of cell called the Reed-Sternberg cell. The other category is non-Hodgkin lymphomas, which includes a large, diverse group of cancers of immune system cells. Non-Hodgkin lymphomas can be further divided into cancers that have an indolent (slow-growing) course and those that have an aggressive (fast-growing) course. These subtypes behave and respond to treatment differently. Both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphomas can occur in children and adults, and prognosis and treatment depend on the stage and the type of cancer.

I researched everything I could find, knowing my cancer was likely to return. I was drawn to studies that could use the body’s own immune system to be taught to fight the disease — I wanted immunotherapy.

I had a scan in 2011 that showed something suspicious. That is when I sought out Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and SCCA. 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.

I was intimidated, but I was fighting for my life. These were the people I knew would fight with me. I had seen Dr. Oliver Press’ and Dr. David Maloney’s names on so many papers and knew that they were doing the most leading-edge research. When I found out Dr. Maloney was involved in an immunotherapy trial using CAR T cells, I was ecstatic.

Immunotherapy A type of therapy that uses substances to stimulate or suppress the immune system to help the body fight cancer, infection and other diseases. A therapy that uses substances to stimulate or suppress the immune system to help the body fight cancer, infection and other diseases. Some immunotherapies only target certain cells of the immune system. Others affect the immune system in a general way. Types of immunotherapy include cytokines, vaccines, bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) and some monoclonal antibodies. Lymphoma Cancer that begins in the cells of the immune system. There are two basic categories of lymphomas: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphomas. Cancer that begins in cells of the immune system. There are two basic categories of lymphomas. One is Hodgkin lymphoma, which is marked by the presence of a type of cell called the Reed-Sternberg cell. The other category is non-Hodgkin lymphomas, which includes a large, diverse group of cancers of immune system cells. Non-Hodgkin lymphomas can be further divided into cancers that have an indolent (slow-growing) course and those that have an aggressive (fast-growing) course. These subtypes behave and respond to treatment differently. Both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphomas can occur in children and adults, and prognosis and treatment depend on the stage and the type of cancer. T cell A type of white blood cell. T cells are part of the immune system and develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. They help protect the body from infection and may help fight cancer. A type of white blood cell. T cells are part of the immune system and develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. They help protect the body from infection and may help fight cancer. Also called T lymphocyte and thymocyte.
Stephanie Florence: SCCA patient, treated with CAR T-cell therapy

My relapse brought aggressive disease; I wasn’t a candidate for the trial. I needed a blood stem cell transplant instead. I had a successful transplant in 2014. Unfortunately, the results didn’t last.

But I had the opportunity to participate in the T cell trial in 2015 and received my re-engineered cancer-fighting T cells on July 2, 2015. I would compare it to a blood draw and an infusion for a few hours while lying in a bed. It was so quick and painless.

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.

I had hundreds of questions, pretty tough ones for the doctors. They were fantastic and they did their best to answer everything I asked them.

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.

Bone marrow transplant The process of treating disease with high doses of chemotherapy, radiation therapy or both. Bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells are given after treatment to help the body make more blood cells. The process of treating disease with high doses of chemotherapy, radiation therapy or both. Because this treatment destroys the bone marrow’s ability to produce blood cells, bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells are given after treatment to help the body make more blood cells. Infusion An injection of medications or fluids into a vein over a period of time. Lymphoma Cancer that begins in the cells of the immune system. There are two basic categories of lymphomas: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphomas. Cancer that begins in cells of the immune system. There are two basic categories of lymphomas. One is Hodgkin lymphoma, which is marked by the presence of a type of cell called the Reed-Sternberg cell. The other category is non-Hodgkin lymphomas, which includes a large, diverse group of cancers of immune system cells. Non-Hodgkin lymphomas can be further divided into cancers that have an indolent (slow-growing) course and those that have an aggressive (fast-growing) course. These subtypes behave and respond to treatment differently. Both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphomas can occur in children and adults, and prognosis and treatment depend on the stage and the type of cancer. Relapse The recurrence (return) of disease after an apparent recovery. Side effects A problem that occurs when treatment affects healthy tissues or organs. Some side effects of cancer treatment are nausea, vomiting, fatigue, pain, decreased blood cell counts, hair loss and mouth sores. Stem cell A cell from which other types of cells develop. For example, blood cells develop from blood-forming stem cells. T cell A type of white blood cell. T cells are part of the immune system and develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. They help protect the body from infection and may help fight cancer. A type of white blood cell. T cells are part of the immune system and develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. They help protect the body from infection and may help fight cancer. Also called T lymphocyte and thymocyte. T cell A type of white blood cell. T cells are part of the immune system and develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. They help protect the body from infection and may help fight cancer. A type of white blood cell. T cells are part of the immune system and develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. They help protect the body from infection and may help fight cancer. Also called T lymphocyte and thymocyte. T lymphocyte A type of white blood cell. T lymphocytes are part of the immune system and develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. They help protect the body from infection and may help fight cancer. A type of white blood cell. T cells are part of the immune system and develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. They help protect the body from infection and may help fight cancer. Also called T cells and thymocyte.