Surprising Diagnosis Leads Skin Cancer Patient to City of Hope

May 29, 2018 | by Robert Young

Barbara Dorfman | City of Hope Barbara Dorfman
Barbara Dorfman ran a large nursery school for 25 years, helped raise five children and has enjoyed an exceptionally active lifestyle with her husband. She’s navigated all that life has to offer for many years now, but nothing could prepare her for the diagnosis she received a few years ago. 
A strange, suspicious rash turned out to be cutaneous T cell lymphoma (CTCL), a rare form of skin cancer that’s incurable. It’s manageable in many cases, but without advanced treatment it can spread to internal organs and turn deadly.   
“I was in excellent health,” Dorfman said. “Then one day I woke up and noticed a rash on my midriff along with a lump the size of a quarter. Our family doctor sent me to a dermatologist, and the dermatologist said he had never seen a rash like mine. He didn’t know what to make of it so he took a biopsy, and 10 days later I found out I had this disease.”
After undergoing grueling rounds of chemotherapy for over a year, she was referred to City of Hope and Christiane Querfeld, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Division of Dermatology, a renowned dermatologist who specializes in treating various forms of cutaneous lymphoma.
Since the disease is so rare, finding effective treatments can be difficult, but Querfeld has dedicated herself to researching and developing experimental new protocols for CTCL. After trying several options with no success, Querfeld settled on total body electron beam therapy for Dorfman, an advanced and highly effective treatment.
Blessed with a fighting spirit and much support from her large family, Dorgman's outlook is sunnier and more positive than ever. The therapy turned out to be a success.
I’m so very blessed to have Dr. Querfeld in my life,” said Dorfman, who lives with her husband of 56 years. “Before saying she is an extraordinary doctor, she is an extraordinary human being. Medicines can cure, but a good doctor’s inspirational words can give you the strength to fight within.”

A mission to heal 

Querfeld, who also specializes in skin pathology and melanoma, developed a keen interest in cutaneous lymphoma while training at Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago and Northwestern University.
After a stint at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, she made the move to City of Hope’s Toni Stephenson Lymphoma Center, one of the few institutions in the country to offer clinical trials to treat cutaneous lymphoma, a disease that typically strikes people in their 60s and 70s.  
Now Querfeld leads the dermatology division, treating patients and developing a range of leading-edge, experimental protocols for cutaneous lymphoma and other skin cancers. Her focus is on immunotherapy — drugs that trigger the body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells — and thanks to the vast resources at City of Hope, she has a wide range of options at her disposal.
“I feel that it’s important to offer patients different treatment options,” she said. “In Barbara’s case, her CTCL was quite advanced. I tried several types of treatments to get it under control but nothing worked; lesions would disappear but come right back. That’s when we went with total body electron beam therapy, and Barbara responded quite well.“
Total body electron beam therapy delivers low-dose radiation to the upper, superficial layers of skin, covering the entire body. Patients couldn’t tolerate it all in one session, so treatments are spread out over a six-week cycle.
“It works wonders,” Querfeld added. “It clears all the lesions from the skin. I like this option for our older patients if other treatments don’t work, but patients can only take the electron beam therapy once, maybe twice. Not many cancer centers offer it, but we have it here at City of Hope.”

The journey continues

Dorfman did experience side effects from the therapy, severe fatigue and hair loss, but her lesions were eradicated, for now, and life has settled back down. Now she can continue enjoying retirement and focus on her role as a “hands-on grandparent,” doting on her 11 grandchildren.  
Caring for children is a lifetime passion for her, and not just her own. She managed up to 300 kids when she ran her nursery school, retiring just 10 years ago. “I loved my work,” Dorfman said. “I believe every child is someone’s whole world. The world is a better place one kid at a time.”  
Relentlessly positive, Dorfman admits she isn’t quite as active as she was before getting sick — no more workouts at the gym or tennis three times a week — but she still keeps up with her longtime yoga practice. 
It’s a full life, and she plans to keep fighting for it with optimism and gratitude. Thanks to her team at City of Hope, she’s already looking ahead to her next clinical trial.
“I’m so very thankful,” Dorfman said. “City of Hope is so wonderful, from the doctors to everyone that works there. The love and warmth is in the air. My words will never be enough praise. I thank each and every member at City of Hope. The bottom line is — I am blessed!” 
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