Shari Kienzle loves taking long walks with her two very slobbery but endearing Newfoundland dogs along Pittsburgh’s Mon River. “It’s my way to unwind,” she explains. “Walking, work, my family — these are my biggest hobbies.”
But a walk along the river means more than just a simple, carefree afternoon for the 52-year-old Canonsburg, Pa. resident. It’s one of many steps forward in recovering from a life-changing illness that started in the summer of 2017 when Shari returned from a family vacation with flu-like symptoms. When these symptoms escalated, she went to her local emergency department.
“By the time the doctors drew blood, they knew it was serious,” Shari says. She was transferred to UPMC Shadyside, where she received her diagnosis. Shari had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, an aggressive cancer that primarily attacks the lymph nodes. In Shari’s case, the cancer also attacked her organs, bones, and bone marrow.
With the support of her husband and three daughters, Shari began chemotherapy at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Despite three different chemotherapy regimens, Shari’s cancer continued to spread. By January 2018, Shari’s doctors started exploring other treatment options, but had to rule out most of them.
There was hope for Shari yet. Around this time, UPMC started offering an innovative new treatment to select patients with certain types of cancers, previously only available through clinical trials. These trials — headed by Alison Sehgal, MD, and Kathleen Dorritie, MD, both hematologists/medical oncologists at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center — showed incredible promise that the team hoped would translate into successful treatment for Shari. The treatment, called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, is a type of immunotherapy that uses the patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer.
T-cells are a type of white blood cell specially equipped to fight infection and disease. When a T-cell recognizes something in the body as a threat — like a virus — it attacks and destroys it to keep the body healthy. CAR T-cell therapy takes advantage of this T-cell characteristic by using a patient’s own genetically modified T-cells to find and kill cancer cells.
Under the expert care of James Rossetti, DO, and his team at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, Shari decided to move forward with the innovative treatment. “It was scary, because it was a brand-new process,” Shari says. “But I knew it was my best option to beat this thing. I went into it with open eyes.”
Though CAR T-cell therapy proved to be lifesaving for Shari, it was not without challenges. By the time the therapy started, Shari’s body had been weakened by both the cancer and multiple rounds of chemotherapy, which caused her femur to break during the simple act of trying to put on a sock. She also experienced some side effects common to CAR T-cell therapy, including flu-like symptoms and brief, yet substantial, neurological impairment. With the support of her family and medical team, she recovered fully and quickly from her complications.
Thirty days after her first CAR T-cell infusion, doctors performed a full-body CT scan. The result? The scan showed no evidence of the disease.
Like all cancer survivors, Shari will regularly follow up with her medical team in the months and years to come. She is grateful to have her life and independence back, along with the pleasures of unwinding along the river with her favorite walking companions: Hudson and Mocha.
“The care I received at UPMC was amazing,” Shari says. “The doctors, nurses, researchers, even the number of blood transfusions from donors — that’s dozens of people who came together to help me. It’s the best miracle I’ve ever had.”
To make an appointment with a UPMC physician, please call 1-800-533-8762 (UPMC), or request an appointment online.