Monday, June 29, 2015

Happy 4th of July!

As we reflect on America’s independence, we celebrate Philadelphia as the birthplace of our constitution and great nation—and home to the scientific and medical community leading the charge in the eradication of cancer.

The Perelman School of Medicine just celebrated its 250th anniversary as the first medical school in the country, and this esteemed institution is now an established destination for medical education and advances that benefit the entire nation’s public health and welfare.

From the legacy of the of the Philadelphia chromosome discovery to the development of the revolutionary chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) therapy, Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) continues this tradition of innovation in cancer research and care—by becoming the international epicenter for cancer immunotherapy.

When the history books are written, Philadelphia will be also be known as the birthplace of America’s freedom from the bonds of cancer.

As we celebrate liberty, independence, and hope this July 4th remember that it isn’t just our brilliant scientists who are behind the scientific discoveries needed to solve cancers most complex challenges. It is also our community of philanthropic partners who support innovation and our brave patients who participate in promising research that are moving the needle closer to a cancer-free world.

Here is one such family’s story:

Lori Alf: Mother, Entrepreneur, Cancer Survivor, and Penn Ambassador

The Alf Family
When Lori Alf, a mother of three, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma—an incredibly aggressive blood cancer that develops in bone marrow—she and her husband decided that honesty was the healthiest approach for dealing with her cancer.

“I didn’t want to push my children away by shielding them from my experience. As a family, we leaned on and supported one another. Together we learned about the perseverance of the human spirit—and what a gift life is,” said Mrs. Alf.

A Family’s Love Inspires Action

During Mrs. Alf’s five years of various treatments, she endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy, blood transfusions, and a stem cell transplant. All to just keep the disease under control. She braved long, hard hospital stays that amounted to weeks and months away from home.

“While my life didn’t stop, I had to step out of it to managing my disease—which became a third full-time job on top of being a mother and running a successful business,” said Mrs. Alf.

When she was home she was afflicted with terrible side effects, and when she wasn’t able to take care of herself, her children and husband stepped up. They kept the family going, and kept Mrs. Alf fighting.

Mrs. Alf’s teenage daughter, Caterina, who is a competitive figure skater, took charge. She got herself to her morning training sessions and school, her two younger brothers Christer and Chapin, ages 14 and 11 respectively, to and from school and their activities, helped care for her mother, and made dinner almost every night—all the while never missing a beat with her own school work.

“I quickly learned that when faced with the pain and suffering of cancer, people become generous and caring. I saw this within the courteous, beautiful, and loving people that were my fellow patients and in the empathy and caring of my medical teams—but most importantly I found it in my own home and within my incredibly hard-working and compassionate children. This was the greatest gift my cancer gave us.”

The standard of care for multiple myeloma is treatment with a cocktail of chemotherapy, medications, blood transfusions, and stem cell transplants. The more medications that are given, the more compromised the immune system becomes, and the more challenging it is to function.

For Mrs. Alf, positive responses to a treatment would only last a month or two before her body would become resistant, and she went back to square one.

“It felt like being stuck in a maze. No matter where I turned I was met with more obstacles and felt like there was no way out,” Mrs. Alf explained. “This approach always seemed counterintuitive to me, and common sense made me ask why compromising my immune system would help me fight my disease.”

When first diagnosed, Mrs. Alf asked about immunotherapies. She was told that she would never see those options in her lifetime—the science just “wasn’t there.” But something within her knew that she would see it and that she would get there, it was just a matter of finding the right people at the right time.

Then, Mrs. Alf’s disease became refractory—she was no longer responding to her medications. She became incredibly ill, spending all of her time in bed sleeping.

“Finally, I could not take another day, another bag of chemotherapy, or another blood transfusion. My husband and I re-focused our research on immunotherapy options—which led us to Philadelphia and the Immunotherapy team at the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) of the University of Pennsylvania.”

Little did she know that she was about to become a part of cancer history, by becoming the first patient to be treated on a revolutionary new clinical trial using chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) therapy, for multiple myeloma.

Penn Medicine’s Hail Mary therapy

“Penn became my saving grace—while I was fighting for my life for five years, the brilliant scientists here were continuing a 30-year fight to get the science of immunotherapy ‘there,’ for me and for all of us with cancer.”

From her first appointment at Penn, Mrs. Alf immediately felt she was in good hands.

“Dr. Stadtmauer and his team, that included medical oncologist Alfred Garfall, MD, knew the ins and outs of my medical history the way a parent knows their child’s. I have never experienced anything like it. I knew I meant something to my doctors, and that will be in my heart forever,” Mrs. Alf explained.

During her treatment at Penn, her kids stayed at home during the week, and then flew up to the City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love from South Florida on the weekends to be with her, bringing with them hope and happiness that her treatment may work. Mrs. Alf came through the experimental CAR treatment with encouraging results.

Celebrating a New Chapter in Life

Mrs. Alf’s cancer journey has kindled an incredible passion for helping people that matches the passion pouring out of every doctor at Penn for their work. She has also become a generous philanthropic partner and unofficial ambassador of the Abramson Cancer Center.

“Together, my family and I are learning how to live again. And a big part of that is giving back,” said Mrs. Alf.

Lori Alf, Summer 2015

Mrs. Alf will be speaking to the pre-medicine department of her children’s school as a way to engage and excite the next generation of physician-scientists. The topic: T cell engineering and the future of cancer immunotherapy.

The school’s pre-medicine department is also organizing a fundraiser at Mrs. Alf’s ice skating rink that will benefit CAR therapy at Penn Medicine, with plans to take the event to a national scale.

But for now, Mrs. Alf is grateful for the opportunity and looking forward to experiencing another summer watching her children grow.

To support these efforts, please contact Katie Dewees Detzel at or (215)746-1927.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Love for Life: Changing the Future of Pancreatic Cancer

Christine Edmonds and her children Harrison & Adrienne at the dragon boat races.

“It is important for someone who has pancreatic cancer, or knows someone with it, to make an effort to raise money for research. We used our sadness to motivate us to do something. It has been incredibly healing for our family and friends to give back.”
—Christine Edmonds, A Love for Life

When Christine Edmonds lost her husband, Kevin, to pancreatic cancer in just 18 months, she knew she wanted to do her part to make an impact on improving diagnosis and treatment. With the support of family and friends, A Love for Life was created to raise funds for pancreatic cancer research—and last year donated $100,000 to Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center.

Kevin Edmonds and his sister, Nora.
Two years before Kevin’s diagnosis, his sister, Nora, died of the same disease. After Kevin fell ill, he and Christine went from hospital to hospital looking to confirm their instincts and find a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. However, with no clear indicator, doctors suggested possible gall bladder issues, Crohns disease, or fibromyalgia.

A tumor developed on his spine, but a biopsy indicated an unknown origin. Finally, an MRI on Christmas Eve 2010 showed pancreatic cancer, which had grown enough to be detected. Having once worked as publisher of the American Cancer Society’s Clinical Trials and Oncology Records, Kevin knew that his time was short. He immediately started clinical trials at the Abramson Cancer Center in the hopes of slowing the progress of his disease, as well as to help scientists better understand pancreatic cancer and contribute to finding better ways to treat it.

“Kevin loved Penn. He loved his oncologist, Nevena Damjanov, MD. She was so supportive, and very realistic. She said, ‘I will always tell you the truth.’ We appreciated her honesty,” Christine recalled.

The Edmonds family: Christine, Kevin, Harrison,
and Adrienne.
Shortly after his passing, Kevin’s neighborhood friends formed a dragon boat team in his honor. While only three members of the team had ever raced before, they won gold in their division—it was unheard of and magical. The next year the non-profit 501(c) (3) A Love for Life was formed. The team roster has grown tremendously in the last several years—with six A Love for Life boats (over 130 paddlers) committed to participating in the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Festival on October 3, 2015. A new team joined last year and paddles in honor of Newtown resident Scott McCraney, who passed away from cancer in 2014.

Supporters representing A Love for Life run marathons in Philadelphia and NYC, half-marathons in Brooklyn and 5Ks as far away as Vienna, Austria. “We have received so much support from our community. Friends have organized bi-monthly Yoga classes, make lavender bundles and custom imprint necklaces, a group of Newtown grade school children sold snow cones over the summer and sent me a check for $500,” Christine shared. "About half of the money we raise comes from generous sponsorships from over 50 companies."

By 2020, pancreatic cancer will be the second leading cause of cancer death. Better methods of early detection, more effective treatment options, and emergency status care are all needed in order to change this statistic. The Abramson Cancer Center’s newly formed Pancreatic Cancer Research Center, led by Robert Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, was created with theses urgent needs in mind and is dedicated to finding better treatment options for this devastating disease. 

The Abramson Cancer Center and Penn Medicine have committed $10 million to the Pancreatic Cancer Research Center, and Stand Up to Cancer awarded the ACC an $8 million grant—both funds are backing Dr. Vonderheide’s status as a co-leader of the Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C)-Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Convergence Dream Team. The team, made up of scientists and clinicians from several institutions, will work together to develop new therapies to use patients’ own immune cells to treat pancreatic cancer.

Christine Edmonds and A Love for Life volunteers present
the ACC with a $100,000 check.
“Pancreatic cancer is unfair, and can be a quick fight. Both Kevin and Nora were diagnosed at age 49, and died at 51. We chose the Abramson Cancer Center to be the beneficiary of A Love for Life funding because the future in immunotherapy is promising. Together with Penn’s brilliance for innovative science and their passion to quickly move these discoveries forward, I am confident that there will be better options for people faced with pancreatic cancer in the near future. I know Kevin, Nora, and Scott are proud of A Love for Life’s contribution,” Christine shared.

To make a donation towards pancreatic cancer research, click here, or contact Evelyn Schwartz at or (215) 898 – 8625.

To learn more about A Love for Life visit