New Cancer Treatment: Experimental Options

by Chris Cioffi

In the nearly two years after Billings resident Mary Ellen Hitron, 64, was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma – the most common form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma – she has always believed that she would beat the cancer.

“I’ve got eight grandkids,” she said. “I can’t see me not being here.”

The Terry native who has lived in Billings for more than two decades is on her third round of chemo
treatments and participated in an experimental cancer study at the National Institutes of Health. She is one of only two patients from St. Vincent Healthcare who received chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, said Dr. David Christianson, an oncologist at the St. Vincent Frontier Cancer Center.

“This is a form of personalized therapy that uses the patient’s genetically engineered T-cells to destroy
cancer cells,” he said.

The experimental treatment involves removing some of her body’s T-cells, re-engineering them to attack the lymphoma cells and injecting them back in her body.

“They were in there like little Pac-Men eating up those cancer cells,” Hitron said.

Surgery is rarely used as an option to treat lymphoma, and the T-cell therapy was the only treatment option that had potential.

The therapy is still in its infancy, but Hitron said she hopes her treatment can be an example for others
facing a grave prognosis.

“What they are doing with me, they will be able to develop the same thing in other people,” she said.

mary ellen hitronHitron got sick in 2013. Gallbladder surgery didn’t alleviate her illness, and a CT scan revealed a grapefruit-sized mass between her spleen and her stomach. Doctors told her she had cancer, but the reality of her diagnosis didn’t sink in until she underwent surgery to implant a port in her chest. The device allows doctors to easily inject drugs into her bloodstream.

Woozy from the anesthesia, she looked down, saw the port and began to cry, she said. “I couldn’t stop it.”

After the initial shock wore off, she found some inner strength, she said. “I started thinking, ‘Yeah I
can beat this,’ and I’ve thought this all along.”

Last week, Hitron was able to drive herself to the cancer center and walk to a reclining chair for treatment, but in the fall of 2013 she could barely stand.

“I had gotten pretty sick,” she said. Her lungs had begun to fill with fluid, and the cancer was getting out
of control.

During the first round of chemo treatments she also was bitten by a rattlesnake while walking her dog.

She spent three days in intensive care. After hearing her options for treatment, Christianson
and Hitron determined the best chance for her survival would be the NIH trial in Bethesda, Maryland.

Too weak even to walk through airports, she was pushed through the airport in a wheelchair by her
husband, Ken.

NIH doctors examined Hitron and determined that she was too sick to be eligible for the trial, but doctors requested an exemption from the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA exemption was granted during the government shutdown, she said. “I really lucked out. I got some really good doctors.”

Returning to Billings after a follow-up appointment in December 2013, a scan revealed the tumor was
down to the size of a walnut.

“It was actually a miracle as far as I am concerned,” she said.

By winter 2013, her lymphoma went into partial remission, and she went to work until December 2014, when the lymphoma was found near her heart.

Hitron is now on her third round of chemotherapy, and Christianson still coordinates with NIH doctors
to determine the best course for her treatment.

“They are really the ones who set their plan,” said Michele Lacher, the clinical nurse manager. “They
tell us what to do.”

Hitron was at the Cancer Center on Tuesday to receive part of the drug regimen she gets every three weeks.

“What (Christianson) is trying to do is get rid of it before it turns into the aggressive kind,” Lacher said. “This isn’t a cakewalk and she’s just handling it very well.”

Even though she’s been in treatment and on and off disability for the past two years, she’s never lost her
sense of humor, she said.

“My sense of humor has been one of my saving graces,” she said. “I kind of always try to make jokes and stuff.”

Her hair has begun to thin again after growing back while she was in remission, and now when she takes
off winter hats her hair stands up on end.

She wanted to show her grandson, who recently got an iPhone, her silly hair-do, so “I took some selfies of myself and sent them to him,” she said.

It’s important for Hitron to stay positive and communicate with family and friends about her cancer treatment.

She hopes that her story can be an inspiration for others who are struggling with a tough prognosis.

“A lot of people get diagnosed with cancer and think it’s the end,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”

Chris Cioffi is a reporter for the Billings Gazette and can be reached by email at ccioffi@billingsgazette.com.

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