10:07am Saturday 04 April 2020

Treatment helps woman make most of life after cancer

Andres Forero (back), M.D., a co-leader in the experimental therapeutics program at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, worked closely with the company Seattle Genetics in the development of the pre-clinical data on cancer drug SGN-35 and eventually collaborated in writing the first Phase I clinical trial in human beings.

Finally, UAB Assistant Professor of Medicine Amy LeJuene, M.D., provided the first glimpse into Harvard’s problem, and it changed — and saved — her life. A chest X-ray revealed a tumor the size of a football, and LeJuene immediately referred her to the Comprehensive Cancer Center. When Hematology & Oncology Professor Andres Forero, M.D., saw the X-ray and diagnosed Harvard with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in June 2003, her outlook was bleak.

“I was very ill, with only a week or two to live,” Harvard says. “It’s a miracle that I am alive.”

Harvard plans to applaud that miracle with other cancer survivors Friday, June 1 at “Celebrating Life,” a National Cancer Survivors Day event at Regions Park hosted by UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, Birmingham Barons and various Alabama cancer-related organizations. The event begins at 6 p.m., with educational opportunities, children’s activities, giveaways and more. The first 200 cancer survivors will receive a free T-shirt and ticket to the Barons’ game against the Chattanooga Lookouts. An honor wall will enable participants to honor a loved one who has or had cancer; for information or to submit a name, visit www.uab.edu/survivorsday.

National Cancer Survivors Day is an annual celebration of life that is held in hundreds of communities during the first weekend of June each year. Participants unite in a symbolic event to show the world that life after a cancer diagnosis can be meaningful and productive.

Harvard certainly has tried to live her life that way since her diagnosis. Her cancer was so advanced that she has been treated six different times since then in an effort to beat back the disease. That’s why these events are so special.

“Cancer changes a persons life in such a dramatic way that it is really something to celebrate,” Harvard says. “When we all get together, you can feel the power and energy of everyone there. There are many people like me who have exceeded their life expectancy, and that is a worthy cause to celebrate. Events like this really help you see a strong feeling of love, support and community.” 

Part of a clinical trial

Harvard, a Birmingham native, was 22 and a student at the University of Montevallo when she was diagnosed. She was engaged to her now-husband Mark, whom she met in 2001 while working at Our Lady of Sorrows Learning Center, and she wanted to become a kindergarten or first-grade teacher. Cancer changed those plans.

Harvard recalls those early days after her initial diagnosis as a blur.

“I was so sick that I really didn’t understand what all was going on,” she says. “I could tell from my family that something wasn’t right. I was not completely awake for that week in the hospital. My life was never the same after that week.”

Forero, a co-leader in the experimental therapeutics program at the UAB CCC, says Harvard’s case wasn’t unique, but the circumstances under which she was diagnosed made it complex.

“She had symptoms for two or three years, and she was not diagnosed until the disease was in a very advanced stage,” Forero says.

As with most cancer treatments, Harvard’s road has been tough at times. And if it were not for an experimental treatment she received at UAB, Harvard may not be alive today. Forero asked her to be part of a clinical trial in 2007 for a drug known as SGN-35, which had yet to receive Food & Drug Administration approval.

Forero and UAB worked closely with the company Seattle Genetics in the development of the pre-clinical data on SGN-35 and eventually collaborated in writing the first Phase I clinical trial in human beings. In fact, UAB treated the first human patient to ever be given the drug.

At the time Harvard was given SGN-35, no one knew if it would work.

“It was a shot in the dark,” Forero says. “When she was in the Phase I clinical trial, it was exploratory and we didn’t know how active the medication was. Fortunately, we have shown it to be extremely effective. It’s the most active medicine ever discovered for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

SGN-35 is a protein that recognizes the Hodgkin’s lymphoma cells. A toxin is bound to the protein and then injected into the body where it circulates and finds the tumor cells. Once it binds to the tumor cells, the toxin is delivered inside the tumor. The drug has proven to be effective in trials for Hodgkin’s lymphoma and anaplastic large cell lymphomas that were resistant to prior therapies or came back after a period of time.

The FDA approved SGN-35, now known as Adcetris, for treatment of these types of lymphomas in August 2010.

“We were extremely active in the development of the drug up to the point it was approved,” Forero says.

The drug worked very well for Harvard initially. It stopped working for a while, but she began using it again in January of this year and it wiped out her cancer completely in two treatments.

Making most of a new life

Harvard says her “new life” began after diagnosis in 2003, and while it has been difficult at times, it has also brought her tremendous opportunities.

Harvard had a stem-cell transplant at UAB in 2004 and Mark — her fiancé at the time — lived in the hospital with her for three weeks. He slept, showered and washed his clothes in the hospital.

“He was the main reason I kept fighting and endured all those treatments,” Harvard says. “He could have easily left in the beginning, in 2003, and I wouldn’t have blamed him. He stayed and gave me the love that I live for every day.”

She married Mark in 2005, and they were flown to New York for the NBC “The Today Show” in October of that year where she received a makeover from a famous stylist. Harvard also was featured in a 2008 episode of “Mystery Diagnosis” on Discovery Health.

One of the things Harvard is most proud of is being one of the founding members of the Young Supporters Board of the UAB CCC. The board, which comprises young professionals ages 22-35, was established in 2006 to introduce the next generation of Alabamians to the importance of cancer research and awareness.

The Young Supporters Board hosts projects and fund raisers throughout the year and provides services and activities for cancer patients in the inpatient and outpatient units. The group has raised more than $230,000 since its inception for the UAB CCC and UAB’s cancer research efforts.

“We want to help patients who are sick,” Harvard says. “We want to give them hope that there are other survivors out there. There are people who have walked in their shoes and know what it’s like.”

She also is happy to promote UAB’s services when she has the opportunity.

“I have received excellent care at UAB,” Harvard says. “Dr. Forero and I have been through so much together. I am very blessed to have him as my doctor, and the staff has been so kind and always ready to help.”

Harvard continues to take SGN-35 once every three weeks as a precaution. Because of her long history of relapsing, Forero wants her to stay on the medication as long as she continues to respond well.

Havard says she has come to peace with her health. She says she knows there will be more ups and downs, but she is ready to handle whatever comes her way.

“I try to make the most out of the life that I have been given and try to live the best life possible,” she says. “My family is so dear to me and they are the support that drives me to keep pushing ahead.

“No matter what life brings your way if you have faith that will carry you through,” she says. “I can’t say enough just how blessed I am to have such a great support system of family, friends, doctors and nurses. There really are angels here on Earth who help us through the trials of life.”

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