Jenna Strickland has checked in and out of multiple hospitals and doctors’ offices since childhood. Born with cystic fibrosis, a chronic genetic disorder that debilitates the lungs and other organs, Jenna knows too well the pain of suffering from chronic illness and the daily fight to regain her health. Two years ago, she overcame a battle that at times she did not think she could win: non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and she did it with a revolutionary treatment known as T-cell immunotherapy—when the immune system rallies to fight the cancer.
Jenna, who turned 30 last August, found herself on a lung transplant waiting list in 2015 after suffering long periods of illnesses and difficulty breathing related to the cystic fibrosis. At the time, her lungs were functioning at just 18% of normal capacity. She had just started graduate school for a master’s degree in social work, and had to put that and other life plans on hold. That summer, she underwent a double lung transplant, a 10-hour surgery, conducted at NewYork-Prebysterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
“The transplant was a very rough recovery,” says Jenna, “but after three weeks, I regained my strength, felt healthier, began exercising again, and things started to look up.”
In January 2016, six months after her surgery, Jenna began experiencing severe sore throat that required prescription pain medication. It wasn’t too long after that she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, specifically post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder, or PTLD. PTLDs are lymphomas that can develop in patients who are taking immune-suppressant drugs after a transplant.
Under the care of lymphoma specialist Dr. Changchun Deng, Jenna underwent chemotherapy that eradicated the cancer, but a year later it returned. Jenna experienced a toxic reaction to aggressive second-line chemotherapy that was needed to eliminate her cancer.
“I thought I was going to die,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t go back to chemo. I knew that the cancer was still there and that I was in pain. And, I was only 27. My family and I were so worried.”
Newfound hope with cell therapy
When Jenna met with Dr. Ran Reshef, Clinical Lead for Cell Therapy at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, to discuss a cell therapy clinical trial, she and her family regained hope. Jenna was scared, and knew little about this new form of treatment but also decided that this was her chance for a cure.
In recent years, cutting-edge cancer immunotherapies have shown success in treating a wide range of cancers; still, many approaches to immunotherapy are in the research phase and only a few immunotherapies are FDA approved. Jenna received cytotoxic T-cells called Tabelecleucel,or tab‐cel, immune cells that are directed against Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)—the main driver of lymphoma that appears after transplant.
Now a little over two years after her tab-cel treatment, Jenna remains cancer-free. “This therapy saved my life,” she says.
“Cell therapy is an amazing lifeline for patients like Jenna who have overcome a life-long struggle with a debilitating disease, only to encounter a bad type of lymphoma that arises in patients who received an organ transplant,” says Dr. Reshef, a member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center. “EBV-targeting T-cells allow patients to avoid the severe side effects of chemotherapy and eliminate lymphoma with the power of the immune system alone.”
For Jenna, her Columbia care team is synonymous with family. They made her feel safe over the years and would often lift her spirts, especially on more challenging days.
“Dr. Reshef could easily pick up when I’d be anxious or really stressed out,” she adds. “He knew just what to say and how to ease my concerns. At Columbia, I let the experts do their jobs. I place so much trust in my doctors.”
February marked Jenna’s final follow-up visit for the cell therapy. While some days are more of a struggle than others, what matters most to Jenna is her new outlook on life.
“I appreciate every single day. I am thankful for my parents and enjoying life,” she says. “I know that I’m out here fighting for everyone around me, not just myself.”
-Melanie A. Farmer