Second Opinion at Ohio State Leads to Successful Immunotherapy for Cancer Patient

Christine Sander

Memorial Day 2015 is as vivid memory for Christine Sander. She remembers feeling just completely exhausted all the time. To top it off, her daughter broke her arm.

“I was working full time with two young kids … and trying to be the best wife, mom, friend, employee that I could. I thought the tiredness was just my reality at this stage of life," she recalls.

But then Christine developed persistent mid-back pain and an unexplained, low-grade fever. She consulted with her primary care doctor and her sports medicine doctor. Testing showed she was anemic, so she began taking iron supplements. Doctors suggested a pinched nerve may be causing the back pain. She took the iron supplements and went on with life.

But soon the pain became worse – shooting down her arm as well as her back – and she developed a bad cough. Her primary care doctor prescribed steroids and the cough/pain in her back dissipated for a brief time.

Then in August, she began what she calls the “slow downhill.” Once she was off the steroids, her symptoms returned in full force, but this time, her chest also started to hurt. She began to feel as if she couldn’t breathe. She went back to her doctor for tests. Imaging tests revealed a large mass in her chest. Her doctor sent the biopsy off for testing, and then she waited. Her doctor never called to say, "We think you may have cancer” – one day she was just told to show up for an oncology appointment.

“I was so frustrated. I remember telling my husband I felt like I was dying and didn’t know who could help me,” says Christine.

The oncologist offered no definitive guidance, so she chose to get a second opinion at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James). She was referred to hematologist Robert Baiocchi, MD, PhD. She says she’ll never forget that first phone call she had with him. He had reviewed her existing testing, imaging and biopsy results and believed she had a primary mediastinal large B cell lymphoma.

“He said, ‘We are going to get you back to your happy life.’ Then his nurse practitioner Gretchen called and talked me through everything they planned to do and answered my questions. I felt so relieved. In what was seen as this big machine of Ohio State, I had real, caring people helping me get answers and the treatment I needed. They made me feel like it was all going to be okay,” says Christine.

Christine’s cancer had advanced to a point that it was compressing her lung and heart. She was days, maybe hours away from heart failure. She was admitted to the hospital immediately and began a combination of chemotherapy and an immunotherapy drug called rituximab. This two-drug combination is 90 percent effective among patients with her type of cancer. Before the introduction of rituximab, the disease was treated with chemotherapy alone and was only effective in about 50 percent of patients.

“I recognize the value of research, but this really brought it home for me. 10 years ago, this treatment would not have been available to me,” she says.

Christine completed treatment in March 2016 and rode her first 25 miles in Pelotonia that following August. The Pelotonia community is part of who she is now – so much so that her extended family planned their upcoming vacation around the 2019 ride.

“The momentum and energy is palpable riding in Pelotonia. I have been personally touched by cancer, but it feels so good to be part of a bigger movement to support cancer research for the good of all of us,” Christine adds. She will be riding 55 miles in Pelotonia 2019. To date, she has raised nearly $11,000 for cancer research at the OSUCCC – James.