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Blood Based Cancer Patient Stories

Gary Gardiner, Jr., was running out of options.

The Fredericksburg, Va, real estate broker had been diagnosed in February 2017 with a common form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells. After enduring six months of intense chemotherapy, 10 percent of the cancer still remained. Doctors discovered that he had a far more aggressive type of lymphoma than they initially thought and prescribed radiation therapy in the hope that it would deliver the knockout blow.

But after 30 days of radiation therapy, Gardiner learned in late December 2017 that the treatment had not worked: incredibly, the tumor in his chest had grown even larger. His doctors in Virginia recommended more chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. After three rounds of chemotherapy, more bad news: his cancer had become resistant to chemotherapy. He was no longer eligible for a transplant.

His only option: CAR T-cell therapy, a new FDA-approved treatment in which patients’ own immune cells, or T-cells, are genetically engineered to recognize and attack the cancer. And this is how he came to meet Dr. Aaron Rapoport, a nationally recognized hematologist-oncologist at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center (UMGCCC).

UMGCCC is one of a select group of cancer centers across the country to offer chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy for certain types of lymphoma and leukemia. It is a major center in Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic region, having treated more than 50 patients with CAR T-cell therapy, including some who took part in research trials. 

“The minute we met with Dr. Rapoport and Dr. Seung Tae Lee we knew we were in the right place. It was incredible,” Gardiner, 50, said of the February 2018 meeting.

“My wife, Teresa, our two sons, Gary III and Brandon, and I were so thankful that God’s path placed us in front of so many unbelievably experienced doctors, nurses and support specialists as I clearly began to realize I was in for the fight of my life,” he said, adding, “Our boys were such a huge support to us and stayed strong during our entire cancer journey.”

As Gardiner went through the testing and approval process for the treatment, his condition continued to deteriorate. The tumor in his chest was growing and pressing on the superior vena cava, a major blood vessel in his heart, causing swelling in his face, neck arms and hands. “I was really swollen. The cancer was growing at a rapid pace,” he said. “I was going down that quickly.”

Doctors were granted special permission to give him an immunotherapy drug not normally used to treat lymphoma. The drug, pembrolizumab, ended up killing two-thirds of the cancer. “Dr. Rapoport said it was a very good sign that my body had responded so well to immunotherapy,” Gardiner said.

In April 2018, he was approved for CAR T-cell therapy and received his own genetically-modified T-cells on May 7, 2018. He experienced a well-known side effect – cytokine release syndrome (CRS), a systemic inflammatory response, which, in his case, caused fluid to develop around his heart and lungs which needed to be drained. He remained in the hospital for eight days, cared for by a specialized team of nurses and doctors, including oncologists, critical care specialists, cardiologists and pulmonologists. After he was discharged, he met with Dr. Rapoport for daily follow-up appointments for a month before returning to Virginia. 

PET-CT scans revealed that at long last, the cancer was gone.

“It’s a true miracle. CAR T-cell therapy literally saved my life,” said Gardiner. He and his wife now serve as patient and caregiver advocates, meeting with CAR T-cell therapy patients and their families in other parts of the country. He credits the doctors at UMGCCC, the University of Virginia, and Hematology Oncology Associates of Fredericksburg, Va., for providing him with extraordinary medical care during his two-year cancer journey. 

“Our mindset always was that there was something that would work. We never gave up. The miracle was CAR T,” he said.

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