When Shari Kienzle felt ill after a vacation last September, she thought she had the flu. But when treatment didn’t help, and her symptoms became worse, she went to the emergency room.
“It was there where they started taking blood and saying something serious is wrong,” she says.
Doctors at UPMC Shadyside diagnosed Shari with diffuse large B cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Because the cancer had developed so quickly and aggressively, she started chemotherapy at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside right away.
Unfortunately, Shari had no response to the first two rounds of treatment, and her cancer spread into her spine. Around the holidays, she tried a third regimen – a combination of chemotherapy injected directly into her spinal column as well as through traditional IV. Again, the treatment didn’t stop the spread of her cancer.
“Obviously, it's very scary. I couldn't believe it was me that was going through that,” Shari remembers.
When her third treatment failed, Shari, the once active and on-the-go working mom, was debilitated. The cancer ate away at her bones, and she had a broken hip and leg, and a torn rotator cuff. Even her vision had become impaired.
Shari’s oncologist, James Rossetti, DO, suggested she try a fourth option – newly FDA-approved CAR T-cell therapy. Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy that uses the patient’s own genetically modified T cells (white blood cells) to find and kill cancer cells. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is the only center in western Pennsylvania to offer this therapy to patients with certain types of blood cancer.
Shari received her CAR T-cell therapy infusion in April. After the infusion, she suffered from neurological toxicity, from which she completely recovered. Shari and her husband came back to Hillman for her 30-day scan to see if the treatment had worked.
Shari and her husband couldn’t believe the results; her scan was completely clear, and she was cancer-free. Her body continued to heal, and about two months later, she started to feel well again.
“I feel great compared to where I was before and not being able to walk, or make dinner, or really leave the chair or couch very much. That's not where I am today. I'm really pushing myself, and I feel great,” she says.
Shari will continue to be closely monitored and undergoes routine scans, which remain clear. Now, she is ready to get back to her new normal. She remains grateful for Dr. Rossetti, her care team at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, and the opportunity to have CAR T-cell therapy.
“There's not enough words to be thankful for the medical team, for the doctors, for the people that I've never met – the researchers. I know there's a ton of people in the background that have put time and energy into CAR-T, and thank you. Because of you, I'm sitting here today,” Shari says.