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Annette P A Third Chance at Life

How a stem cell transplant and cutting-edge medical care helped one woman survive three different cancers.

Annette’s long and arduous fight for her life began in 2006, when she was diagnosed with Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that affects white blood cells, which are part of the immune system. “I began researching the best New Jersey physicians for blood cancers, and Roger Strair, MD, PhD, at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey came up,” recalls Annette, who lives in Freehold. She met with Dr. Strair, a medical oncologist and Chief of Blood Disorders at the Institute, and he reassured her that she was in good hands with her local oncologist.

After two years of chemotherapy, Annette went into remission. But in 2009, a routine PET scan revealed a mass in her right kidney. Annette was diagnosed with early-stage renal cancer and the kidney was removed. She recovered, but seven years later another alarm went off when routine bloodwork came back abnormal. After several tests, her oncologist had grim news: Annette had another blood cancer—this time, multiple myeloma. Unlike non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the disease is less curable, with a five-year survival rate of only about 50 percent.

Annette was stunned, but once again she threw herself into researching the best local oncologists for the disease. “I have grandchildren, and I was determined to stay alive for them,” she says. Her research led her back to Dr. Strair. His recommendation: a stem cell transplant, in which a patient’s own stem cells—immature cells found in bone marrow and blood—are removed, then returned after a course of high-dose chemotherapy. The stem cells replace the ones that are destroyed by chemotherapy. “I looked at him and said, ‘I’m 70. Aren’t I too old for this?’ and his response was so reassuring,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Annette, we do these in people your age all the time.’”

A Lifesaving Treatment

On November 2, 2016, Annette was admitted to RWJUH New Brunswick for a stem cell transplant. Her recovery was grueling. “I had a lot of side effects—everything from GI issues to simply feeling very weak,” she says. The nurses made sure she got up and moved every day, and her son and daughter-in-law visited daily. “That support was so important because I was so lonely and scared,” she says. “I knew I needed to maintain a positive attitude if I was going to get through this.”

After about a month, Annette was well enough to go home, but Dr. Strair would not release her until she had a caretaker lined up for the next three weeks (her siblings and cousins took turns staying with her). “It warmed my heart how much he looked out for me,” says Annette.

Relishing Every Day

After the transplant, Annette required weekly doses of the chemotherapy drug bortezomib (Velcade) for six months, which helps prevent multiple myeloma from returning. Last year, she was switched to a newer drug, daratumumab (Darzalex).

“The hope is that it will get rid of any new multiple myeloma cells as soon as they crop up,” says Dr. Strair. “Annette has a type of multiple myeloma that’s essentially incurable, but there are more treatments available now than ever before. We’re continually developing new classes of medications.” For example, Rutgers Cancer Institute and RWJUH New Brunswick are currently offering CAR Tcell therapy, in which a patient’s immune system is harnessed to fight the disease.

In the meantime, Annette is relishing her new lease on life. The former teacher enjoys long walks, cooking and spending time with her four grandchildren, who range in age from 11 months to 12 years.

“The most amazing moment for me was holding my 2-day-old grandson last year,” she says. “When I was diagnosed three years ago, I never thought I’d be alive for his birth. But here I am, driving my grandkids to soccer games and chasing them around the house.”

Annette with Jacqueline Manago, RN, BSN, BMTCN and Rober Strair, MD, PhD

Annette credits her survival to Rutgers Cancer Institute and RWJUH New Brunswick. “I tell everyone I know that if they or a loved one is diagnosed with multiple myeloma, they must see Dr. Strair,” she says. “I had a phone number I could call any time of the day or night. I don’t know of any other hospital that would provide that sort of attentive care.” Dr. Strair says taking care of patients like Annette is what makes his work so rewarding. “Annette is a wonderful, caring person. I don’t know if anyone else could have gone through three cancer diagnoses with her grace and perseverance,” he says. “She’s a true inspiration.”

RWJBarnabas Health and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick, in partnership with Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey—the state’s only NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center—provide close-to-home access to the latest treatment and clinical trials.

To make an appointment at Rutgers Cancer Institute, call 732.235.8515. To learn more about cancer care at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick, visit www.rwjbh.org/rwjuhcancer.