Immune to Cancer: The CRI Blog




Barbara L’s Immunotherapy Story

Ovarian Cancer |  Diagnosed 2009

When we get the vaccine done, I think I’m only there about a half hour to an hour; it’s really quick.

Barbara’s Story

Barbara Lisser calls her husband, Abe, her “rock.” Abe is such a sturdy and reliable partner in her battle with ovarian cancer that she often uses the pronoun “we” to describe her experience. The 62-year-old receptionist also credits her co-workers at the hair salon where she works for being so understanding and supportive.

The worst part of her cancer treatment was right at the beginning, when she received surgery and chemotherapy. Since starting on immunotherapy, she says she’s had “not one bad day.”

Barbara was treated at the Abramson Cancer Center at University of Pennsylvania by George Coukos, MD, PhD, and Janos Tanyi, MD, PhD As part of a clinical trial, Barbara received a two-step immunotherapy regimen. The first step consisted of a vaccine made from her own dendritic cells that were previously exposed to cancer cells from her tumor. These “smart” dendritic cells were then injected back into her lymph nodes where they help to stimulate her immune system to attack cancer cells in her body.

In the second part of the immunotherapy, doctors removed T cells from her blood, grew them in billions of copies in the lab, and then re-infused them back into her body. The idea is that this army of T cells will be effective at eliminating cancer because they have been “educated” by the dendritic cell vaccine to recognize her cancer cells. This combined approach is designed to prevent recurrence of her ovarian cancer. The Answer to Cancer (A2C) spoke with Barbara about her immunotherapy experience.

Questions and Answers

How and when did you first learn you had cancer?

In 2009, I had just started with a new OB-GYN and she noticed that I had had some abnormal Paps over the years. She asked me if I ever had an ultrasound, and I hadn’t. So she ordered the test for me and the results from the ultrasound showed that I had a mass. She referred me to a specialist and he recommended that I have a hysterectomy. He was originally just going to do the ovaries and the tubes, but I was already 57 years old, and kids were no longer in the picture, so I decided to go ahead with the full hysterectomy.

How did you learn about immunotherapy and why did you decide to do it?

I went through a shorter treatment of chemo. Then my doctor at the time, George Coukos, talked about the study that I’m involved in now, which is designed to prevent recurrences, which is definitely what I want. I completed the first part of the trial about two or three months ago. Now I’m involved in another part of the study. These [trials] are much easier on me physically and mentally. Now it’s just really one day at a time.

What was treatment like? Did you have any side effects?

When we get the vaccine done, I think I’m only there about a half hour to an hour; it’s really quick. I’m surprised it’s not painful.

How did immunotherapy compare to other treatments you may have received, if any?

Well, the biggest difference is that when I was diagnosed five years ago, the treatments were much more heavy-duty. It was much harder on me. Physically, I was more tired. When I compare it to the treatment that I’m having now, it’s very different. I’ve had zero issues, not one bad day. I haven’t lost weight. I probably lost about eighteen pounds before, and I’m thin to begin with. But I’ve gained back maybe ten of that. My weight now is steady. I didn’t lose my hair, and that’s a big issue for me—as it probably is for most women.

Are there things that surprise you about the cancer experience?

Well, it makes everything seem much more precious. Of course, at the beginning, I hated it and I said “Why me?” But it hasn’t really changed my life in any way. I just look at everything one day at a time. I don’t let it get me down.

What would you want another patient to know about immunotherapy or about participating in a clinical trial?

Find other patients you can talk to. There’s one girl that I met at the University of Pennsylvania, she’s from Oregon and she and I keep in touch on the Internet. And we share stories and I think that’s really important. Just to talk to somebody who makes an effort. I would recommend that to anybody who is unfortunate enough to get sick. I mean, it’s helped me, and I’m cancer-free.

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