Innovative Therapies in the Fight against Cancer at Baylor Scott & White Health
by David Buice, Special Contributor | December 20, 2019
Just when we think we’ve done all the right things, fate throws us a curve we never saw coming.
That is precisely what happened to Elvira Velez. At age 36, after ending a long-term relationship and moving to Dallas for a fresh start, her life’s trajectory changed abruptly. On December 26, 2018, she received a diagnosis of breast cancer.
Her initial reaction was shock. A young healthy woman, she wondered, “How is this happening to me?”
To her credit, Velez’s initial astonishment was immediately replaced by the resolve that has carried her through. “Whatever the diagnosis,” she determined, “this cancer was not bringing me down — of that I was certain.”
On the day her chemotherapy began, driven by her undaunted resolve to fight and recover, she signed up for a spin class. She also began writing notes of encouragement to herself which helped carry her through the day. And every time she entered the hospital, she says, “I knew we were closer to not having cancer.”
Sharon Killey’s story is a bit different. Where Velez had felt relatively hardy up until the time of her cancer diagnosis, Killey, a very active 69-year-old, found her energy waning to the point that she could barely walk. The answer to this medical mystery came with a diagnosis of an aggressive strain of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
She too was shocked as there was no history of cancer in her family. “As I approached my 70th birthday, I had no idea how grateful I would be to survive that milestone,” she says.
Her treatment involved a challenging regimen of chemotherapy at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center. She acknowledges the treatments were “tough,” but says, “The prayers and support of others and my faith would be my weapons in this fight. I took them every step of the way.”
A holistic approach with constant, caring support
Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center and Baylor T. Boone Pickens Cancer Hospital – both on the campus of Baylor University Medical Center – take a holistic approach to combatting cancer that involves additional forms of both physical and emotional support including dietary counseling, fitness classes, caregiver consultations, art and music therapy, behavioral health and more.
Playing a central and vital role in the treatment that Killey, Velez and other cancer patients receive at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center are the institution’s patient navigators. From the initial diagnosis through the entirety of their cancer treatment, these nurse navigators guide each patient through tests and procedures, while providing invaluable emotional support. This service is available to each patient at no cost.
Killey’s nurse navigator was Stacey Webb, who was never more than a quick phone call away. “Stacey still checks on me and will always be my friend,” she says.
Helping the body’s immune system fight cancer
In close coordination with the medical center, Baylor Scott & White Research Institute focuses on innovative clinical trials including novel cellular therapies, immunotherapy and natural killer cells, and evaluates promising treatment options in many first in-human studies.
Among the most encouraging research developments in the last few years have been the advancements made in the field of cancer immunotherapy, including a promising approach known as cellular therapies or “living drugs.” This form of therapy allows clinicians to reprogram a patient’s own immune cells to detect and destroy specific cancer cells at the microscopic level.
Commenting on the advances he and his colleagues have made, Ronan Kelly, MD, chief of oncology for Baylor Scott & White Health – North Texas, says, “What we are seeing in the landscape of cancer research is an emphasis on how patients — with the right treatment — can fight cancer utilizing their own immune system.” And he adds, “Through these clinical trials at Baylor University Medical Center, we are helping pioneer next generation cellular therapies some of which are first in-human. Immunotherapy has rapidly become the fourth pillar in cancer care behind traditional options of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.”
More innovations in cancer treatment to come
Thinking of new initiatives to be undertaken in the continuing fight against cancer, Dr. Kelly says, “In order to be able to treat cancer as a chronic disease, we not only need to care for every patient, we need to learn from every patient. Through Baylor Scott & White Research Institute, we are uniquely positioned to do just that. On our campus, we hold a key differentiator in that we house the only good manufacturing practice (GMP) facility aligned with a hospital system in North Texas. This enables us to take immune cells from patients via a blood test, manufacture the altered immune cells and grow them in the laboratory, and give them back to the patient as an infusion of genetically altered immune cells, all in the same location that the patient is treated.”
This holistic approach makes Baylor University Medical Center the destination of choice for cancer patients in North Texas, and the spirit of determination and faith underlying these efforts is fully shared by patients like Elvira Velez and Sharon Killey.
Both are now cancer-free. Summing up her current situation Velez writes, “Today I feel great. I feel powerful and beautiful. I’m honored to share my story in hope of inspiring someone else to fight and fight hard.”
In a similar vein, Killey says, “None of us knows our future, but I know God holds the future for each of us. And I am grateful.”
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