Seven City of Hope patients will welcome the New Year atop City of Hope’s 47th Rose Parade float, “Harmony of Hope.” Meet float rider Cheryl Wiers, a wife and mother of two who battled cancer twice only to have it return. She eventually found prolonged remission thanks to a breakthrough therapy offered at City of Hope.
As a full-time speech pathologist, wife and mother, Cheryl Wiers
barely had time for herself. She definitely couldn’t afford to get sick. Then she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma
, a cancer that starts in white blood cells.
“My first thought was, 'I can’t die,'” Wiers remembered thinking to herself in January 2016. “My 4-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter were not going to grow up without a mother.”
Wiers, a Redlands, California, resident, went to a neighborhood oncologist, where she went through six rounds of chemotherapy. Around that time, a family member suggested that she get a second opinion from Stephen Forman, M.D.
, a clinical scientist at City of Hope who has been at the forefront of hematology and hematopoietic cell transplantation for four decades.
Forman said he agreed with her current treatment but if the cancer returned, she should consider coming to City of Hope, a world-renowned independent cancer research and treatment center.
A breakthrough treatment
City of Hope is among the pioneers of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T therapy
, which reprograms immune T cells to recognize and destroy cancer cells by adding a CAR to those cells. Currently, City of Hope has 16 ongoing CAR T clinical trials.
About half a year after her chemotherapy in Redlands, Wiers’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma returned. She started a second round of chemotherapy elsewhere before transferring to City of Hope. City of Hope completed her chemotherapy regimen. She was cancer-free for some time, but the recalcitrant cancer came back.
Forman recommended that she participate in a phase 1 clinical trial for CAR T cell therapy. After some thought, Wiers assented.
“Although the treatment was experimental, my care team thoroughly explained what I could expect,” Wiers said. “I had complete faith in Dr. Forman and my medical team.”
Wiers’s T cells were removed and genetically engineered to target the antigen CD19, a protein found on the surface of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers. Then, she received an autologous stem-cell transplant, where the body’s own immune cells are harvested and then frozen. After intensive chemotherapy, those cells were returned to Wiers’ body with the goal of restoring her body’s ability to make normal blood cells. Next, the CAR T cells were infused back into Wiers’s blood stream and redirected to attack cancer cells.
“I’ve been in remission for nearly two years, and it’s all thanks to the breakthrough cancer treatments available at City of Hope,” Wiers said.
Music-filled car rides
The last two years have been difficult for Wiers and her family. Music provided escape from constantly thinking about “what ifs” and facilitated the sharing of carefree joy. Certain songs like “Down to the River” by Jordan Feliz remind her of the hour-long car rides the family would make from Redlands to City of Hope in Duarte. Music continues to play an important part in Wiers’s life by demarcating different life moments.
During those family-filled car rides, she went through a gamut of thoughts and emotions, including the fear of death and fear that her poor health and reduced ability to be a high-energy Jane-of-all-trades in the household would leave her children feeling neglected and unloved.
“I tried to include the kids in the journey as much as possible because they need to know,” Wiers said. “I wanted them to understand what’s happening, witness what I’m going through and know that I’ll be OK.”
Wiers recalls how her kids were such a source of energy. Sometimes she would be in bed fatigued and ready to call it a day, but one of the children would jump in and urge her to do something like watch them ride a bike.
“I would tell them I’m not feeling well right now and asked for some time,” she said. “A few minutes later, they would come over and ask again. So I got out of bed. I was always glad I did. The kids forced me to be more active, which assisted in my recovery.”
Wiers is now in remission, but she is fatigued much more than before and is grateful for a supportive husband, helpful friends and amazing extended family.
“I’m realizing that I can’t jump back into my life and do it all: maintain a household, make meals, work full time, take care of the kids, help with homework,” Wiers said. “I am understanding my limitations and am thankful my husband, friends and family have volunteered to help so I can have more time to rest or nap.”
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