By Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.C.h.B. and Molly Barcalow
Is cancer a failure of the immune system? This is a question researchers are working on—and fast—to discover.
Right now, we’re experimenting with antigen-specific T-cell therapies, a type of targeted immunotherapy that infuses T-cells into the body to attack cancer cells and virus-infected cells to support immune function, especially in patients who have had a bone marrow transplant.
One of my favorite case studies belongs to Molly Barcalow, a brave patient whom I had the pleasure to work with as she was fighting a rare form of leukemia. Instead of telling the story myself, I want to give Molly the chance to share her story in her own words.
Here is Molly’s story:
The summer of 2014 marked the end of eighth grade and the beginning of high school, but I wasn’t feeling well. I had strange pains that traveled from my hip to my shoulder. After numerous doctor visits, X-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans and spending eight days in the hospital, on Aug. 4, 2014, I found out what was causing my pain: pediatric leukemia.
Before I had time to absorb the news, I was moved to the pediatric oncology unit and scheduled for port surgery in the morning. I started my first round of chemotherapy the next day.
A sample of my leukemia cells was sent away for genetic testing. The tests revealed I had a rare form of leukemia, hypodiploid acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which meant I needed a bone marrow transplant to survive.
For the next four months, while my friends were enjoying high school, I went weekly to the pediatric oncology clinic for chemotherapy, blood transfusions, spinal taps and bone marrow biopsies. High school had to wait.
I was admitted into Children’s National Medical Center the day after Thanksgiving, went through eight rounds of full body radiation at Georgetown Hospital. Fortunately, my brother, Davis, a freshman in college at the time, was a perfect bone marrow match. He donated his bone marrow and saved my life on Dec. 8, 2014.
I stayed in the hospital for 42 days. Once home, I proceeded with caution. I had to make it to day 100, post-transplant. Ordering take-out food, going out in public and visiting with anyone who didn’t have current vaccines were off limits.
During those 100 days, I checked in with my oncology team frequently and received immunotherapy, a T-cell therapy in which my brother’s T-cells had been trained in the laboratory to fight illnesses common in patients after they have a bone marrow transplant.
By March 2015, I was feeling much better and enrolled in online-learning, which helped me catch up in school. I was even able to return to ballet class instead of going to physical therapy. I’ve been dancing since the age of 3 and really missed dance class.
I physically returned to school for my sophomore year, but I remained cautious. I avoided crowded hallways, wiped my desk down with disinfectant wipes and instead of pulling all-nighters like many of my friends, I got a good night’s rest.
I’m proud to say I graduated from high school on time, despite missing my freshman year, and I got into the college of my choice, Christopher Newport University. I’m starting the pre-med track, supported by a few scholarships. I’m not sure what type of medical career I want to pursue but I do know I want to work in a pediatric hospital like Children’s.
My advice to anyone facing a similar diagnosis is to take it one day at a time, remain optimistic by looking on the positive side (it could always be worse) and keeping yourself busy, but allowing your body to rest. Remember, you are not alone in this fight.
My family and friends were by my side the entire time, Dr. Bollard guided me through immunotherapy, Dr. Jacobsohn provided the bone marrow transplant and Dr. Dulman, an oncologist, checks in with me annually.
While I would have never chosen to have cancer, I’m proud to say I’m a pediatric cancer survivor. I’m stronger because of it.
Molly Barcalow graduated from Colgan High School in Prince William County and just started her freshman year as a pre-med student at Christopher Newport University.
Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.C.h.B., is the director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National Medical Center.