Every day is a gift. No one knows that better than Mary Wong Lee.
When she was diagnosed with a golf-ball-sized brain tumor, she believed she had only months to live. That was a decade ago. Mary, now 65, still values every moment she has to share with her sons and her husband.
She had an aggressive, rapidly growing form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. She agreed to try an investigative therapy—a vaccine that activated her immune system to fight the cancer. She credits the vaccine with saving her life.
“I’ve been working with this cancer for over 30 years. You just don’t see those types of responses.”
When Mary received her diagnosis, “I was devastated,” she says. “I was thinking my kids were still in college, I hadn’t seen them graduate from college, or see them get married. There’s no doubt in my mind the vaccine worked.”
Mary initially went to the doctor because sudden migraines left her unable to speak, interfered with her ability to write, and turned her thinking cloudy. Her family physician wept when he delivered the news of her diagnosis and what it most likely meant: She would have 15 to 18 months to live.
After the diagnosis, Mary went to see Dr. Black and weighed her treatment options. Standard chemotherapy and radiation therapy alone were unlikely to have favorable outcomes.
Mary qualified for what was then an early clinical trial for a brain cancer vaccine. Unlike what most of us think of as a traditional vaccine—which revs up our immune system to prevent disease—this vaccine treats disease, specifically brain cancer.
A patient’s own tumor cells are used to create a targeted immunotherapy, conditioning the immune system to recognize the cancer cells as invaders and attack.
Mary was one of the first patients to receive this treatment. She also underwent chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery to remove her tumor. Nearly 40% of the patients who received the treatment have lived more than 8 years. Typically, fewer than 3% of people diagnosed with glioblastoma live 5 years.
“I’ve been working with this cancer for over 30 years, and we did a lot of different studies, a lot of different treatments,” Dr. Black says. “You just don’t see those types of responses.”
Cedars-Sinai has been studying these vaccines for more than 15 years and is home to the largest brain cancer vaccine clinical trials in the United States. The vaccine used to treat Mary is now in its third phase, when larger numbers of patients are given a treatment to confirm its effectiveness. Scientists compare it to commonly used treatments and collect and analyze data that will allow the treatment to be used safely.'With the research we're doing, we can give people real hope,' says Dr. Yu. Click To Tweet
“Survival has doubled or tripled for some patients,” says Dr. John Yu, co-director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute and lead investigator on the brain vaccine trials. “Even those with the most devastating disease, with the research we’re doing, we can give them real hope.”
Mary credits the vaccine with more than saving her life and giving her time. It’s given her countless moments of happiness and meaningful milestones: a chance to see her son Kevin graduate from college; wiping away a tear at the wedding of her oldest son, Michael; kissing her grandson Connor’s forehead when he was just a newborn and clapping over his first birthday cake; sharing the pleasures of grandparenthood and a few more rounds of golf with her husband, Ed.
“I didn’t expect to be here this long, and I’m sure I would tell everybody the same thing,” Mary says. “It doesn’t mean your life is going to be short. It can be done.”
Mary is a grateful patient and supporter of the Campaign for Cedars-Sinai. Learn more about the Campaign.
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