August 29, 2019
Kansas City native Heloise Gray, 65, is a wife, mother, grandmother, retiree, bowler, reader and skater.
She’s also a fighter and a survivor.
Leukemia symptoms emerge
When Heloise retired from her position as a Social Security disability claims representative, she was eager to spend more time with her family and friends and to explore volunteer opportunities to give back to her community. Instead, her life took an unexpected turn. She began to experience recurring nausea, struggling to keep down any food or even water, and noticed her energy levels plummet.
“I was very, very weak,” Heloise says. “I could barely get up out of bed and put my clothes on. Instead of the usual 5 to 10 minutes to get dressed, it was taking me 45 minutes to an hour. I couldn’t keep a thing down. When it got to be too much, I asked my daughter to take me to the hospital. I told her, ‘They are going to do something for me today!’”
Her instincts that something was wrong proved accurate. Tests revealed ALL, a fast-progressing cancer that begins in the white blood cells of the bone marrow and can be fatal within months.
“I was in a state of shock,” Heloise says. “No one in my family has ever been diagnosed with anything like this.”
Innovative immunotherapy treatment
Heloise required immediate, aggressive treatment.
In 1952, she was born at what is now The University of Kansas Hospital. Her primary care physician works at The University of Kansas Health System. Given her positive experiences with the health system, electing to receive cancer care at The University of Kansas Cancer Center was a clear decision. Recognized since 2012 as a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, the organization offers patients access to innovative treatments, including clinical trials, close to home.
Heloise’s care team hoped to perform a stem cell transplant procedure to rebuild her blood supply using blood-forming cells from a healthy donor. But unfortunately, Heloise’s family members were only a 50% match, and the 100% match she needed could not be found in the Be The Match® registry operated by the National Marrow Donor Program®.
Joseph McGuirk, DO, medical director of the blood and marrow transplant and cellular therapeutics programs, introduced Heloise to a clinical trial he hoped would put up an effective fight against her cancer. He recommended Blincyto®, a form of groundbreaking immunotherapy that offers some of the greatest potential to transform cancer treatment since the emergence of chemotherapy.
“It’s an incredible, exciting time in cancer medicine,” Dr. McGuirk says. “Scientists are designing molecules that get into the cancer cell’s pathway and stop its growth process. These remarkable advances are happening across the board in cancer medicine. It’s a story being told in laboratories around the world, across the nation and here at our own center.”
“I had already been on many of the traditional medications and chemotherapies, and I wasn’t able to get a stem cell transplant, so the study was the best option for me,” Heloise says.
Blincyto works by instructing the body’s T cells – crucial to the successful function of the immune system – to target and attack leukemia cells. Dr. McGuirk describes it as “two-forked,” where one end attaches to the cancer cell while the other grasps the T cell. The Blincyto antibody brings the T cell close to the cancer cell to release its killing machinery, punching a hole in the cancer cell and inserting toxins to destroy it.
Heloise alternated direct infusions of the Blincyto drug – delivered 24 hours a day for 1 month at a time – with standard regimens of chemotherapy.
“This immunotherapy leverages the knowledge we’ve gained about how the immune system works and how cancer cells learn to circumvent it,” Dr. McGuirk says. “We are arming the patient’s immune system to again do what it should have done in the first place. The opportunity to take part in a clinical trial provides patients like Heloise with immediate access to new therapies to fight aggressive cancers that aren’t responding to chemotherapy. Why not move it to the front line if it’s effective?”
Exceptional care, positive outcome
Heloise's journey included highs and lows, good days and bad. Throughout, she has praised her care team for excellent treatment and unlimited support.
“This is my second family,” she says. “Everybody is caring and hands on, just a great group to work with. Anything I need or want, they’re there for me. It’s an excellent, awesome team.”
She recently reached a significant milestone – the end of chemotherapy.
“Heloise has achieved a beautiful, complete remission,” Dr. McGuirk says. “I am hopeful this disease is behind her once and for all.”
It was a marathon, Heloise says, but she has worked hard to keep her spirits up and her attitude as positive as she could.
“Keep your faith, keep your family and friends praying along for you, and follow your doctors’ orders,” she advises.
She is thankful for access to innovative treatments. Immunotherapy allowed her to attend her oldest grandson’s high school graduation. She has more goals ahead, including plans to volunteer in a local nursing home to bring magazines, crossword puzzles and a smile to residents who get few visitors.
“I’m ready to get back to bowling and skating and all the other things I like to do,” Heloise says hopefully. “I’ve been through a lot, but I am blessed and thankful that I am still here. This makes me more aware that I could be here today, but gone tomorrow. I am ready to live life to the fullest.”