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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Valentine's Day Story

Tom Halford and Alison Stem’s first years of marriage were tested by Tom’s colon cancer diagnosis. But their journey has only strengthened their love and devotion to one another.

When Alison first met Tom, she wasn’t looking for love—she was happily focused on work and her circle of family and friends. But love always seems to come when you least expect it.

“I met Tom at his bar while out with friends. It had a mechanical bull, and he kept insisting that I learn to operate it, telling me it would be great for my resume and professional development. I thought, ‘this guy is a little weird, is he for real?’ But I also thought he was very cute,” recalled Alison.

While Tom’s strategy may have seemed like a play from the romantic comedies Alison loves, his intentions were true—and it worked. After a few dates, they realized that despite Alison’s lackluster bull riding skills, they were kindred spirits—two country folk who didn’t quite fit the mold of their 20-something New York City contemporaries.

“Because we worked in the real estate and restaurant worlds, we took advantage of our non-traditional working hours with movies, excursions out of the city, and mid-week vacations. Ultimately, we decided to leave New York City for Bucks County, PA, get married, and get involved with Alison’s family’s business,” explained Tom.

Tom and Alison on their wedding day.
Their first years of marriage, however, were marred by incredible challenges: Tom’s father passed away, Alison suffered a miscarriage, and Tom was diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread to two of his lymph nodes—the same disease his father had passed away from.

“It was a shock to our system, shifting gears from being newlyweds who wanted to start a family to researching cancer centers,” said Tom.

Like so many families, both Tom and Alison had been personally touched by cancer. Tom’s mom and sister are survivors, and Alison’s mother was treated for thyroid cancer at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania. While she had a great experience at Penn, they decided to research other cancer centers before committing to Tom’s treatment.

Luckily, they did not have to go far.

“I know people tell you not to go online, but I am comforted by information and we knew were going to have to be aggressive in Tom’s treatment. And through my research I learned that proton over regular radiation would give Tom the greatest chance at beating his cancer, and allow a good quality of life afterwards. This therapy wasn’t available anywhere else but Penn,” shared Alison

The Roberts Proton Therapy Center is the largest and most advanced facility of its kind in the world, offering radiotherapy that beams protons directly at tumors, but sparing the healthy tissue, resulting in fewer harmful side effects after treatment.

A Comprehensive and Coordinated Care Team 

But the Roberts Proton Therapy Center was not the only thing that drew Tom and Alison to the Abramson Cancer Center, from their first inquiring call they felt a warmth and compassion they had not experienced at any of the other institutions they visited.

Tom’s surgeon, Najjia Mahmoud, MD, Chief of the Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery in the Department of Surgery, put together a Penn team that included, John N. Lukens, MD, his radiation oncologist.

“I have met a lot of doctors, because of my sister, mom, and dad, and Dr. Lukens is by far the most amazing physician I have ever met. We connected right away and he went above and beyond during my treatment,” said Tom.

This included stepping in as a health insurance advocate. Because younger people are not typically affected by colon cancer, insurance does not cover proton therapy for the disease. And at $50,000, this places a considerable financial burden on the patient and their families—and for some would be a deterrent to the treatment.

Tom 'ringing the bell' after completing
his proton therapy.
Dr. Lukens took it upon himself to appeal directly to the insurance company’s medical board to argue for the benefits of proton. Their initial refusal was overturned and they agreed to pay for proton in full—the first time ever for colon cancer.

“My doctors took an active interest in my life, not just my cancer. And through it all, they took the time to build relationships with us and answer all of our questions. It isn’t just a business here, and we weren’t just a number,” Tom explained.

Beyond thinking of the bottom line, Tom’s care team devised a treatment strategy that focused not only on Tom’s cancer, but also on his family history. Because his father had a heart attack during his chemotherapy, Tom took an enzyme deficiency test to make sure he didn’t have the same sensitivity. Tom’s father also had CFI lynch syndrome, an inherited disorder that increases the risk of cancers of the colon and rectum, and so Tom underwent genetic screening through the ACC’s Center for Personalized Diagnostics.

And his doctors also considered the life Alison and Tom would have after Tom’s treatment was over.

When Dr. Lukens informed them that they wouldn’t be able to try to have a baby until a year after his last chemotherapy, they consulted with Puneet Masson, MD, Director of the Male Fertility Program and decided to cryopreserve Tom’s sperm prior to proton radiation. They plan to undergo fertility treatments at the Abramson Cancer Center’s (ACC) Oncofertility Program at Penn Fertility Care when Tom’s cancer treatment is complete.

Access is powerful medicine 

“I have now been both the family of a patient and the patient and can honestly say, cancer is rough on everyone, and probably almost more so to the family. We found that you find support in places you wouldn’t expect,” said Tom.

Beyond their family and friends who stepped up and helped out, Tom and Alison found personal support from their medical team—with a little help from technology.

Another added benefit of being at Penn, was myPennMedicine, Penn’s portal that enables patients to view their health records, including laboratory and test results, and medications. And an especially valuable feature—allows patients to directly ask their Penn health care team questions, as well as request and manage appointments.

“There is so much anxiety surrounding every treatment and procedure. Having virtual access to our doctors and nurses helped us through some scary nights when Tom was very sick,” said Alison.

Tom added, “We did the math and we had over 200 appointments, all coordinated through myPennMedicine. Our specialists were able to communicate with one another and we were able to communicate with them. This was such a stress relief. I was able to focus on being a patient and Alison on being my care giver. We didn’t find that at other facilities we looked at.”

And over a year after his diagnosis, Tom and Alison are officially seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Tom has been cancer free since September 3, and with his major surgeries, chemotherapy, and proton treatments behind him, they are now able to finally look ahead and focus on married life and having children.

And too think it all began with a humorous story about a mechanical bull.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Penn Medicine’s Global Impact

“If we wanted to have the greatest impact on worldwide cancer mortality, more than any other intervention, we would bring what we currently have available in this country to people around the world who don’t have access to it.” – Larry Shulman, MD, Deputy Director for Clinical Services, ACC, and Director of the Center for Global Cancer Medicine

At the Abramson Cancer Center, our reach goes far beyond the Philadelphia community and far beyond our national partners—several programs are impacting lives globally. On a day such as World Cancer Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness and education about the disease, pressing governments and individuals across the world to take action—we are especially proud to be making a global impact.

Penn’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center 

Through the leadership of James Metz, MD, the Roberts Proton Therapy Center has become the largest integrated proton center in the world, and also includes a Global Training Program dedicated to educating and training emerging leaders in the field. Last year, over 100 representatives from over 21 countries participated in the 2nd Annual Course on Proton Therapy, which trains physicians and specialists on the applications of proton therapy with onsite clinical observations and engagement.

Cancer survivor Bill Barbour who was treated at the Roberts Proton Therapy Center in 2012, shares his sense of pride at having access to a Center right in his own backyard that people around the world travel thousands of miles to for access to treatments and training opportunities. “There are two major missions of the Roberts Proton Therapy Center: healing and preserving life—that’s my story, the local story—but Penn is much bigger than me. Penn will touch lives world-wide through educating and training.”

Patients are coming to the Center from all over the world—this past year, 23 international patients received proton therapy at the Roberts Center. Our patients appreciate the ability to continue their extraordinary lives throughout their cancer treatment. Bill truly appreciates his quality of life both during and after treatment. “I am an avid cyclist and I didn’t want to be off my bike. My oncologist said I could continue to ride as long as I was comfortable. I found a family to stay with in Center City and I rode my bike to and from proton treatment. I went from worrying about if I could ride post-treatment, to being able to ride throughout it, back and forth to the Roberts Proton Therapy Center. I’m still friends with my host family today.”

OncoLink Travels to Tanzania 

Nurses are the front line, interacting with patients every day. Penn’s OncoLink team was presenting at an international conference when nurses from a small country in Africa approached them for help. Their request was simple—they wanted to learn how to take better care of their patients with cancer. The dedicated nurses of the Ocean Road Cancer Institute, Tanzania’s only cancer hospital, began a conversation that has resulted in a model educational program that is changing cancer care in Tanzania. Led by James Metz, MD, and Maggie Hampshire, RN, OCN, Director of Strategic Partnerships - OncoLink, Penn physicians and nurses developed a customized curriculum to cover general topics in oncology and specialized training in radiation therapy.

Botswana…and Beyond 

Launched in 2001, the Botswana/UPenn Partnership (BUP) has helped build capacity in healthcare in Botswana for the last 15 years. This partnership was originally formed to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but now has expanded to provide high-quality medical care and explore collaborations in other areas of development such as women’s health and cancer. In 2009, the BUP Women’s Health Program was established, focusing on needs such as cervical cancer prevention and head and neck cancer treatments. The program provides services for HIV-infected women using visual inspection with digital imaging, treatment of precancerous cervical lesions, and technical assistance to the Ministry of Health for other women’s health issues, including HPV vaccination.

According to the American Cancer Society, cancer survival rates are much poorer in Africa than in the developed world for most cancer types, especially those affected by screening and improved treatment. For example, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is less than 50% in Gambia, Uganda, and Algeria, compared to more than 80% in the United States. In addition to being diagnosed at an advanced stage of the disease, which limits treatment options, cancer patients in most parts of Africa have limited or no access to timely standard treatment— surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation—further diminishing their chance of survival. Surbhi Grover, MD, has been in Botswana over the past year establishing multidisciplinary clinical and research programs to improve outcomes in Botswana. These types of programs are where Penn Medicine truly makes a global impact for those most in need.

With the recruitment of Larry Shulman, MD, Penn has been able to expand its cancer programs to also include Haiti and Rwanda. These national cancer programs not only offer life-saving detection and treatment services to the communities they serve, but also offer opportunities for our students, residents, and faculty to explore learning that make them more well-rounded physicians, as well as explore career and research opportunities that help improve the diversity and validity of our findings.

Philanthropy is key to ensuring these life-saving programs continue. To learn more about ways to support global cancer initiatives, please contact Michal Greenberg at michalg@upenn.edu or (215) 573-2480.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Taking Care of Each Other: How a Cancer Patient Used his Love for Animals to Find Comfort During Treatment

The Wesolowski family: Ken Wesolowski, Lori McGovern, Joan Wesolowski, Casey McGovern.
Perhaps it is his kind disposition and infectious smile, but animals have always known that they had a protector and loving friend in Ken Wesolowski. After meeting him, it isn’t hard to understand why such a kind man, who loves and is loved by animals, would be loved and cared for so fiercely by his family.

Ken survived lung cancer but has Alzheimer's disease, and while he does not remember his cancer, nothing has diminished his love for his family—or his animals. And his family has become his memory.

“We met 51 years ago. I looked at him and he looked at me. That was it,” Ken’s wife Joan said. “I knew I had to get her,” Ken interjected.

A True Renaissance Man

Ken was born with a thirst for adventure that led to travel and careers in engineering and as an art dealer. But a consummate family man, his heart was always at home. The kind of dad who taught his daughter to catch garden snakes and remove ticks from the heads of field mice, he instilled a love for animals that continues to his grandchildren.

And this love was so strong that it sustained him through cancer and memory loss—and is why his treatment at Penn under the care of William Levin, MD, Medical Director of the Penn Radiation Oncology Network, Clinical Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology, was so special.

While at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, Ken received chemotherapy and daily radiation therapy. Tracey Evans, MD, and Abramson Cancer Center nutritionist Katrina Claghorn, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, were also members of his care team and worked with the family to create an individualized nutrition plan for Ken.

“We were so happy with the care he received at Penn,” Joan said. “I know it sounds crazy, but I loved it there and miss going every day! The people, from the nurses to Katrina to Drs. Levin and Evans, all made us feel like Ken was the most important patient in the whole world. We love all of them.”

“We immediately connected with Dr. Levin who just so happens to also be a pet lover,” said Ken’s daughter Jill Rodriguez. “My parents would share photos of their pets with him during my dad's check-ups. By taking the time to learn about us, he found a common ground to focus on something other than taking care of the business of cancer. This was incredibly comforting.”

The cancer journey is fraught with stress and uncertainty and the mission of Penn Medicine’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center is to put the patient first and treat the whole person: medically, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

A part of this mission is the Radiation Oncology Dog Therapy Program, which takes place in the waiting room every Tuesday, and brings calm and solace to ACC patients. Studies have shown that the simple act of petting a dog can lower blood pressure and heart rate—read about Penn Medicine’s therapy dog Finn here.

But the Wesolowski’s were lucky to have their own special animal healing program at home—with their goats, dogs, and any other wild animal that happened upon their house’s barn.

“Dad would carry the dog down to the barn to feed and visit with the goats every day, giving them carrots, saltines, and only the best hay available,” his daughter Lori McGovern recalled.

Home is Where the Heart Is

“When someone is sick, you have to be their voice. My whole family rallied around mom and dad. Mom took care of him, we took care of mom, and he took care of his goats. We advocated for him to get a feeding tube when his dehydration and weight was becoming a concern, and learned ways to keep his weight up from Katrina, the nutritionist,” said Lori.

Ken’s radiation therapy took place two years ago, when the Polar Vortex wrapped Philadelphia in bitter cold, and Joan and Lori slept in the hospital so they wouldn’t miss a treatment.

“We never left his side, just kept rotating because we weren’t going to leave him alone, not for a minute,” explained Lori.

Ken never met a stranger and was always the most popular man on any dance floor.A true partner and kindred spirit, Joan Wesolowski’s good humor and zest for life is also infectious.

“Our mom is so loving and giving and she runs circles around me and my sister, always planning outings and making Sunday dinner for the whole family. She even had a way of making sleeping in a hospital room a blast,” said Lori.

While they worked to keep laughing in the face of a terrible ordeal, Ken got well.

“He would be in bed all curled up sick as a dog but still asking about his goats and would look at us and say, ‘isn’t this fun?’ with that beautiful smile of his,” recalled Lori.

Has an animal or pet played a special role in your cancer treatments? Share your story by contacting Kristen Foca at kfoca@upenn.edu or (215) 573-9629. Learn more about the pet therapy program by contacting Fern Nibauer-Cohen at Fern.Nibauer-Cohen@uphs.upenn.edu or (215) 662-3919.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Preventing Breast Cancer Recurrence

The Rosenbloom family: Debra, Heather, Jerry, Lynn, and Amy


“For seven years after beating breast cancer, my wife Lynn was happy and healthy. But her cancer returned. When recurrent and metastatic breast cancer took Lynn’s life, I knew I had to do something—especially to ensure a hopeful future for my three daughters. The Abramson Cancer Center provided Lynn top-of-the-line care, and I want to support the doctors who fought for her—and continue to fight to eliminate recurrent breast cancer.”
–Jerry Rosenbloom, MA, PhD, grateful family member

Lynn Rosenbloom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, and after a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, drug therapies, and steroids, she entered remission. But a routine physical in 2009, where she mentioned that there was a twinge-like pain in her side, revealed the breast cancer had recurred in her liver.

Lynn immediately began treatment, and after feeling severe side effects from many different forms of harsh chemotherapy, she came to Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) for a second opinion. She met with Kevin R. Fox, MD, co-Director of Rena Rowan Breast Center, and later with the help of Angela DeMichele, MD, MSCE, co-Leader of ACC’s Breast Cancer Research Program, and co-Director 2-PREVENT Translational Center for Excellence, and Lewis Chodosh, MD, PhD, J. Samuel Staub Professor of Cancer Biology, co-Director of the 2-PREVENT Translational Center for Excellence, they devised a treatment plan to try and fight her disease, and also allow her a better quality of life. Unfortunately before Lynn could begin a promising clinical trial to help save her, she lost her battle with breast cancer on June 23, 2013.

“Lynn never complained—not once—during her entire cancer journey,” Lynn’s husband, Jerry Rosenbloom, recalls. “She always said, ‘It is what it is.’ But I know Drs. Fox and DeMichele, and Lynn’s entire care team at the Abramson Cancer Center, helped her keep her positive attitude going. They were incredible, and designed a treatment plan that gave her a good quality of life.”

Jerry learned of the Abramson Cancer Center’s 2-PREVENT Translational Center of Excellence (TCE)—the first and only center of its kind dedicated solely to breast cancer recurrence. The mission of the 2-PREVENT TCE is to work together as a multi-disciplinary team to understand why some women have breast cancer recurrence through prediction, prevention, monitoring, detection, and treatment measures. Traditionally, breast cancer research and treatment has focused on the original tumor as a guide to treat a relapse. Now scientists are realizing that cancers that recur are biologically very different from the original cancer that formed in the breast.

“In an incredibly short amount of time the 2-PREVENT TCE has made great strides in recurrent breast cancer research. Through several studies that identify circulating tumor cells and establish genetic fingerprinting of recurrent metastatic breast cancer, this Center is working with talented scientists towards a common goal: helping our patients become and remain cancer-free,” shares Dr. DeMichele.

Jerry, a Frederick H. Ecker Emeritus Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, relates to cancer research from a unique perspective. “Risk management is what the 2-PREVENT TCE is doing, including clinical level research and pharmaceutical research,” he explains. “Everyone is working together—it made sense. I was very impressed with how much has already happened, and that is when I decided to make a donation.”

The Lynn and Jerry Rosenbloom Family Breast Cancer Recurrence Surveillance Fund supports a series of investigations that will further evaluate how recurrent breast cancer tumors survive. Jerry hopes that this research will show why treatment can stop working, identify the risk percentage of cancer returning, and create a better method of testing—so that people like Lynn will have better options and outcomes.

Jerry decided to create this fund in honor of his wife and to bring hope to future generations, including his three daughters, who are all University of Pennsylvania graduates, “Throughout Lynn’s treatment, our daughters were incredibly present and supportive. For their sake and everyone else’s, I want researchers to figure out what causes cancer to come back after it is in remission, and I hope the 2-PREVENT TCE at the Abramson Cancer Center will find an answer.”

Click here to donate to the 2-PREVENT TCE.

To become a philanthropic partner of the 2-PREVENT TCE, or for any additional information, contact Laura Ferraiolo at (215) - 746 - 2948 or lferr@upenn.edu.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Leaving a Lasting Legacy

When J. William (Bill) Landenberger, III passed away five years ago, by the terms of his will, he established the Landenberger Family Foundation. The purpose of his foundation is to continue his family legacy of generosity through thoughtful charitable donations. And now, Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center will benefit from this legacy of charitable giving.

The trustees of the Landenberger Family Foundation have been impressed with the work and devotion to patient care of Gary W. Falk, MD, MS, a world-renowned expert in the treatment of esophageal diseases and clinical co-director of Penn’s Esophageal and Swallowing Center. To support his work and continued dedication, the Landenberger Family Foundation has made a generous commitment to assist Dr. Falk in his research and care programs.

“Dr. Falk’s superlative abilities in caring for his patients by going above and beyond to improve their quality of life are an inspiration. He is a rare physician-scientist who translates groundbreaking discoveries in research into innovative, yet compassionate, clinical care. We could not be more are honored to receive this generous support of the Landenberger Family Foundation for the incredible work Dr. Falk is currently leading,” said Anil K. Rustgi, MD, Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and T. Grier Miller Professor of Medicine and Genetics.

This summer, after learning more about Barrett’s Esophagus (BE) and Esophageal Adenocarcinoma (EA), the fastest growing cancer in the United States, the trustees of the Foundation decided that there could be no worthier cause than to combat BE and EA. As a result, the trustees created the Landenberger Family Foundation Barrett’s Esophagus Fund, aimed at improving early detection and treatment of this disease.

Like most cancers, BE and EA are treated most effectively when found early, but they are also very challenging to detect because they are associated with few symptoms. The Landenberger Foundation’s generous philanthropic support holds much promise to change this—addressing issues of early detection and improving our understanding of BE and EA through research.

“The Landenberger Family Foundation’s support will propel scientific breakthroughs and enhance Penn’s clinical care to patients who need it most when they need it the most—improving outcomes for all with esophageal diseases. Continued philanthropy will help establish Penn Medicine as the pre-eminent esophageal disease program in the country,” said Dr. Falk.

With support from the Landenberger Foundation, Penn Medicine is developing inexpensive and non-invasive blood screenings that look for circulating tumor cells to help catch these cancers early and save more lives. And in the spirit of translational medicine, the collection of blood and subsequent tissue samples in a Barrett’s Esophagus and Esophageal Adenocarcinoma Library fuels our ability to fight cancer in our labs.

Advances at Penn Medicine and Abramson Cancer Center that seemed impossible during Bill Landenberger’s lifetime are now being made thanks to his generous legacy. To learn more about supporting esophageal and GI cancer research, click here or contact Katie Dewees Detzel at kdewees@upenn.edu or (215) 746-1927.

Have you left the Abramson Cancer Center in your estate plans, or are you interested in learning how to? Contact Michal Greenberg at michalg@upenn.edu or (215) 573-2480.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Leaving a Lasting Legacy

When J. William (Bill) Landenberger, III passed away five years ago, by the terms of his will, he established the Landenberger Family Foundation. The purpose of his foundation is to continue his family legacy of generosity through thoughtful charitable donations. And now, Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center will benefit from this legacy of charitable giving.

The trustees of the Landenberger Family Foundation have been impressed with the work and devotion to patient care of Gary W. Falk, MD, MS, a world-renowned expert in the treatment of esophageal diseases and clinical co-director of Penn’s Esophageal and Swallowing Center. To support his work and continued dedication, the Landenberger Family Foundation has made a generous commitment to assist Dr. Falk in his research and care programs.

“Dr. Falk’s superlative abilities in caring for his patients by going above and beyond to improve their quality of life are an inspiration. He is a rare physician-scientist who translates groundbreaking discoveries in research into innovative, yet compassionate, clinical care. We could not be more are honored to receive this generous support of the Landenberger Family Foundation for the incredible work Dr. Falk is currently leading,” said Anil K. Rustgi, MD, Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and T. Grier Miller Professor of Medicine and Genetics.

This summer, after learning more about Barrett’s Esophagus (BE) and Esophageal Adenocarcinoma (EA), the fastest growing cancer in the United States, the trustees of the Foundation decided that there could be no worthier cause than to combat BE and EA. As a result, the trustees created the Landenberger Family Foundation Barrett’s Esophagus Fund, aimed at improving early detection and treatment of this disease.

Like most cancers, BE and EA are treated most effectively when found early, but unfortunately with few symptoms, they are also very challenging to detect. The Landenberger Foundation’s generous philanthropic support holds much promise to change this—addressing issues of early detection and improving our understanding of BE and EA through research.

“The Landenberger Family Foundation’s support will propel scientific breakthroughs and enhance Penn’s clinical care to patients who need it most when they need it the most—improving outcomes for all with esophageal diseases. Continued philanthropy will help establish Penn Medicine as the pre-eminent esophageal disease program in the country,” said Dr. Falk.

With support of the Landenberger Foundation, Penn Medicine is developing inexpensive and non-invasive blood screenings that look for circulating tumor cells to help catch these cancers early and save more lives. And in the spirit of translational medicine, the collection of blood and subsequent tissue samples in a Barrett’s Esophagus and Esophageal Adenocarcinoma Library fuels our ability to fight cancer in our labs.

Advances at Penn Medicine and Abramson Cancer Center that seemed impossible during Bill Landenberger’s lifetime are now being made thanks to his generous legacy. To learn more about supporting esophageal and GI cancer research, click here or contact Grace Wadell at gwadell@upenn.edu or (215) 573-5056.

Have you left the Abramson Cancer Center in your estate plans, or are interested in learning how to? Contact Michal Greenberg at michalg@upenn.edu or (215) 573-2480.

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 kdewees@upenn.edu or (215)746-1927.