Justin Serrette’s life has changed dramatically since his boyhood days in Henderson, Louisiana, a small town on the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp where locals fished for sac-au-lait and drove to Breaux Bridge each May for the Crawfish Festival.
Along the way, Serrette became a physician, got married and became a father, ran marathons and, in early 2017, was diagnosed at age 36 with low-grade follicular lymphoma by his primary-care physician. Not long after, he came to MD Anderson where a second biopsy revealed he also had triple-hit diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a particularly aggressive and often deadly form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Although he received standard chemotherapy, his cancer did not respond and he was placed on a waiting list for a CAR T-cell therapy clinical trial.
“My diagnosis essentially stole a year of my life,” Serrette says. “The day I went in for my second biopsy, my life was put on pause for the next eight months. I started chemotherapy immediately and stopped working at my job at The University of Texas Medical Branch where I am a pediatrician.”
Serrette and his family moved in with his mother-in-law who helped with child care as he went through three rounds of treatment. At first, his tumor shrank. But then quickly grew back in the third week following treatment.
“Within a few weeks of being told that chemotherapy was not working and that I most likely had about six months to live, I began the process of entering the CAR-T clinical trial.”
Serrette began CAR T-cell therapy treatment in August 2017 and experienced some severe side effects such as fever, nausea and low blood pressure. He recovered quickly and went into remission where he remains today.
A race against time
Although he had dropped in weight from 140 to 118 pounds, Serrette decided to run a marathon, a passion he had pursued for more than 10 years. In January 2018, he ran and finished the Chevron Houston Marathon, the same month he returned to work full time.
“The run itself was tough. After losing 25 pounds of mostly muscle, I was very weak,” he says. “I ran five minutes at a time with a one minute break throughout the race and finished with a time of 4:50:58. It was very slow for me, but I was just happy to get through it and finish it.”
The physician, father and marathoner did not stop there. In December 2018, he ran a marathon in Honolulu, the nation’s fourth largest. In January 2019, he again ran the Chevron Houston Marathon, finishing more than an hour faster than the previous year.
Serrette’s illness has changed his views as a physician, giving him a new perspective on how patients deal with major health problems.
“I try to make sure now that my patients truly understand what is ahead of them because it is easy for health care professionals to assume they understand the complexities of their situation,” he says. “Even as a doctor, the logistics of navigating the medical system blew me away. I cannot imagine how difficult for someone who does not have a medical background. Between making appointments, finding your way around a medical center and dealing with insurance, there are so many opportunities to get confused and miss things. Luckily, MD Anderson made it easy for us.”
Serrette added that his experience as a cancer patient opened his eyes about how he was using his time.
“I have cut back on some of my activities to spend more time with my family,” he says. “Having cancer really teaches you what is important.”