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Cancer Survivors To Celebrate Their Successes

Published July 30, 2002 | Updated January 20, 2016

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Duke Health News919-660-1306

DURHAM, N.C. – A virulent enemy thrust Trent Satterwhite
into a raging river of anguish and pain for six years. Now, he
has emerged from his journey imbued with a sense of
appreciation for life that belongs only to those who have lived
his pain.

They are cancer survivors; often pulled back from the brink
of death by therapies so novel that success is as much a
product of hope as it is science. But when death is your likely
outcome, each shred of hope serves as a notch of support in
your desperate climb toward survival, patients explain.

Finding the words to capture their collective experience
isn't easy. Feelings are more easily conveyed to the exclusive
members of the cancer survivors' club, a virtual brotherhood of
men and women who can exchange a few words and instantly know
their comrade's pain.

They will gather for a single day this summer to inspire,
commiserate, laugh and cry with one another at the place where
they received their life-saving treatments. More than just a
time to gather and meet, the annual reunion at the Duke
Comprehensive Cancer Center is a therapeutic experience for
patients to share their feelings and garner support in a
setting where there are no holds barred, said Allen Dyer, a
psychiatrist who beat multiple myeloma in 1998. He will travel
from Tennessee to attend his third reunion this Saturday, where
doctors will also discuss the latest advances in cancer
therapies.

"For any experience that is traumatic, you need the
opportunity to articulate what you have been through," said
Dyer. "For me personally, I come to the reunions because it's
an important reminder of what I've been through; not that you
ever forget your ordeal, but to stay in touch with those who
have helped you and to focus on the experience and how it has
affected your life."

For Satterwhite, the reunion is a chance to celebrate his
hard-won success with other survivors, and to inspire those who
are still in the throes of their journey. If ever there was a
success story, Satterwhite qualifies. Initially told he had
only three to six months to live, Satterwhite embarked on so
many experimental treatments to fight non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
that he can't recall them by name. Still, the cancer
relentlessly attacked his lymph nodes, kidneys and lungs; even
a bone marrow transplant failed to stem its force.

Finally, doctors at Duke tried an experimental treatment
that is used as a last resort in children, but is largely
untested in adults. Using a small sample of umbilical cord
blood from a newborn baby, doctors were able to replace his
diseased immune system and thus eradicate his cancer. All the
while, he limped through the grueling process with a broken
femur and fractured hip -- remnants of earlier radiation
treatments that weakened his bones.

In November, he will celebrate two years of being
cancer-free -- a milestone he doesn't take lightly.

"I appreciate each and every day now," said Satterwhite. "My
blessing has been to open up my eyes to what life has to offer.
I value my family more. I value everyone I meet. The experience
has changed my whole outlook on life."

Understandably, his perspective has changed dramatically
since that day in 1996 when he was told he would soon die. His
initial reaction was shock, sadness and uncontrollable weeping
that lasted 24 hours, until his inner strength prevailed.

"The next morning, I said to myself, 'there's got to be help
out there, so I'm going to go for it. It doesn't matter what I
have to go through.' I knew, somehow, that it wasn't my time to
go. There is something for me to do here on earth, some purpose
for me to fulfill."

In appreciation of the life-saving therapy he received at
Duke, Satterwhite plans to speak at the open forum for patients
during the reunion, where he will present the transplant team
with a token of his esteem. He wants to keep the exact tribute
a surprise until then, but he is clearly excited about the
meaning behind his small gift.

Later that morning, Satterwhite and fellow survivors will
learn about the latest advances in cancer therapy from the Duke
Adult Bone Marrow & Stem Cell Transplant team, which
performed nearly 200 transplants last year. Currently, the
program has 53 research studies in progress, many of which are
so new that only a handful of patients has received them.

Indeed, oncology is a very different field than it was even
five years ago, as many new drugs and therapies have emerged to
treat life-threatening malignancies, said Nelson Chao, M.D.,
medical director of the adult transplant team at Duke. Patients
come from around the world to enroll in novel clinical trials
that may not be available elsewhere. Among the many therapies
Chao's team is developing include:

  • non-myoablative transplants, which reduce the procedure's
    toxicity by giving patients higher doses of stem cells while
    decreasing the levels of toxic drugs;
  • combining multiple samples of cord blood to boost the
    number of vital stem cells the patient receives, thereby
    enhancing their ability to repopulate the immune system
    quickly;
  • removing the fighter T-cells from donor cord blood and
    donor marrow to reduce the incidence of graft-versus-host
    disease, in which the donor marrow attacks the
    recipient;
  • anti-stromal therapy that attacks the matrix or "stroma"
    that supports the cancer, rather than attacking the cancer
    cells themselves;
  • immuno-modulation, which uses the "natural killer" cells
    of the immune system to fight the tumor without attacking the
    patient;
  • vaccine therapies that stimulate the donor marrow's
    ability to fight specific targets on the tumor itself;
    and
  • using radioactive antibodies to tenascin (a protein
    over-expressed in nearly all tumors) that will bind to
    tenascin and block its action.

For more information about the fifth annual reunion of the
Duke Adult Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Program,
contact Lisa Wright at (919) 668-1048.

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