Robyn Stacy-Humphries, MD, has biopsied and diagnosed cancer her entire career, so when she developed an enlarged lymph node above her clavicle, her clinical perspective told her there was something very wrong.
After reviewing her own imaging test and noting that there were many concerning small lymph nodes, she knew she had lymphoma.
“I had been experiencing what I thought were allergies, but it turned out I had lymphoma in my nasal cavity,” she recalls about her 2011 diagnosis of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL).
Robyn began chemotherapy near her home in North Carolina, which quickly put her cancer into remission. Her oncologists were hopeful that she was cured, but then the cancer recurred in 2015.
She began a second-round regimen of high-dose chemotherapy followed by an autologous stem cell transplant — a procedure that involves harvesting a patient’s own stem cells and then re-infusing them to promote growth of healthy new blood cells — followed by head and neck radiation. She went back into remission but relapsed again in April 2016.
The best option left was an allogeneic stem cell transplant — where she would receive stem cells from another person — but she did not have an identified bone marrow donor match. She also had serious concerns about the disruption this treatment would have on her daily life.
"I am a full-time physician and a generally active person. I already had to limit my practice. If I survived an allogeneic transplant, I would not be able to work in patient care. As the primary breadwinner of the family, I frantically began searching for clinical trials that would control my cancer and give me a better quality of life,” Robyn recalls.
Through her research, she read about CAR T-cell immunotherapy and believed she was a good candidate for the treatment. This treatment involves extracting and re-engineering disease-fighting white cells (T-cells) from a patient’s blood by exposing them to a de-activated virus that enables them able to recognize specific markers of the surface of DLBCL cells. These “re-educated” T-cells are then infused back into the patient, similar to an autologous stem cell transplant process. Instead of relying on high-dose chemotherapy to eradicate the cancer and using stem cells as a rescue to regrow healthy bone marrow cells, CAR T-cell immunotherapy essentially creates “super T-cells” that recognize a specific marker on the surface of the cancer cell and then eradicate the cancer directly.
Robyn learned that The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) had an opening in a clinical trial for CAR T-cell immunotherapy, which was not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration for standard care. She was accepted into the trial and received her CAR T-cell injection in September 2016. Within a week, none of her lymph nodes were palpable. Within three months, there was no evidence of disease. Now three years post-treatment, her cancer remains in remission.
“I hope I am cured, but if I’m not, maybe with the new therapies and medicines they can turn this into a chronic but not lethal disease,” she says. “I feel good, and I have an excellent quality of life. When I go somewhere, people don’t know I have been sick.”
Robyn says she is able to do almost everything she wants to do. She can work and support her family, spend time with her children and enjoy travel with her husband.
“Most of us love superheroes. Why? Because they have super powers and escape death because of some type of genetic alteration. Humans have always been fascinated by escaping mortality. I should have been dead, probably two years ago. But I am alive thanks to a clinical trial that made me a genetically altered human,” says Robyn. “Securing that clinical trial spot was like winning the lottery. There was hope. With my second chance, I am relishing life, and I never stop being grateful for this time.”
Since her CAR T-cell treatment, Robyn has earned open-water dive certification and has gone diving in the French Polynesia. She has hiked much of the W trek in Patagonia and reached the top of Skellig Michael in Ireland. She plans to participate in her fourth 10K Cooper River Bridge Run in the spring. She’s also committed to paying it forward by raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society as a 2020 candidate for Woman of the Year.
To learn more about CAR T-cell immunotherapy and clinical trials at the OSUCCC – James, call 1-800-293-5066 or search our clinical trials.