Confronting Cancer with Clinical Trials
November 03, 2016
Clinical trials give hope to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia survivor
BY Cynthia DeMarco
George Miller is an athlete and a die-hard marathon runner, so he was shocked when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2008.
“I remember thinking, ‘There’s gotta be a mistake,’” George says. “‘I’m too healthy to have cancer.’”
A swollen lymph node and some occasional spells of fatigue were his only real non-Hodgkin lymphoma symptoms, but his general practitioner assured him they were probably nothing. Two months and a course of antibiotics later, the swelling was still there. George’s doctor ordered a needle biopsy.
A non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis
George was halfway through an eight-mile run the next day when his doctor called him with the results: non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A second biopsy confirmed the diagnosis.
“That was a shocker,” George says. “Your whole world is flipped upside-down, and you wonder what's next.”
Choosing a clinical trial ‘to kill cancer’
George’s girlfriend, a Houston native, urged him to get to MD Anderson. Within a few days of requesting an appointment, he was making the 200-mile drive from San Antonio to meet with Felipe Samaniego, M.D., whom he affectionately calls “Dr. Sam.”
Once here, George immediately felt that he’d made the right decision. “I just had this feeling of peace come over me,” he says. “Something in my spirit told me, ‘This is the place you belong.’”
After discussing his options, George enrolled in a Phase II clinical trial under Samaniego. The trial involved a new combination of medicines: a chemo drug called Revlimid (lenalidomide) and an immunotherapy drug called Rituxin (rituximab). Immunotherapy harnesses the body’s own natural defense system to fight cancer.
“I didn't want to do traditional treatment, because I wasn’t very keen on the effects that chemotherapy and radiation can have on healthy tissue. And clinical trials are cutting-edge — they’re sharpening the tip of the spear to put in the heart of cancer and kill it.”
Immunotherapy clinical trial begins
When George started the immunotherapy clinical trial, his cancer was stage IV, with most of his bone marrow showing evidence of disease. But he responded so well to the clinical trial that the non-Hodgkin lymphoma was almost undetectable after about 18 months, and he never experienced any side effects.
“It was remarkable,” George says. “The head of lymphoma even came out to shake my hand one day, saying, ‘We want to thank you because you wrote the book on this particular clinical trial drug.’”
George remained on the clinical trial for two-and-a-half years, only dropping out when a spider bite on his leg became infected.
“I was really disappointed,” George says. “After a year-and-a-half, it had given me a fairly normal life. Unfortunately, if you get sick for any reason, you have to go off the trial. But I understand that drug is now a standard treatment option for non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients, which makes me feel good.”
Taking a break after a second clinical trial
George briefly joined a second clinical trial about a year later, and it kept the cancer stable for several months. But once the treatment started losing its effectiveness, he decided to take a break. That hiatus ended almost two years later, when George fell asleep at a gas station while waiting for his tank to fill.
“I thought I’d just rest in the front seat of my car,” he said. “But 45 minutes later, the attendant was knocking on my windshield, asking if I was OK. That was the final thing that made me realize I was really sick.”
A change in diagnosis: from lymphoma to leukemia
When George returned to MD Anderson in March 2015, he learned that the lymphoma had morphed into chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). William Wierda, M.D., recommended chemo and radiation, but George asked for a clinical trial instead. He enrolled in one under Jan Burger, M.D., involving the drug Ibrutinib. The effects were almost immediate.
“My spleen was inflamed, my lymph nodes were huge, and my blood count was through the roof when I left MD Anderson at the start of the trial,” George says. “But two weeks later, the swelling began to melt away. And now I’m back to running.”
‘I’m at the best possible place’
Today, George returns to MD Anderson about every three months for checkups. But he’s confident that one day he won’t have to, thanks to advances being made here through clinical trials.
“I don’t want to be a patient forever,” he says. “I’m looking for a cure. And I know I’m at the best possible place to find it.”
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I’m looking for a cure. And I know I’m at the best possible place to find it.