Birmingham native Mary Grace McCord was familiar with the world-class research and patient care available at UAB, but she never imagined that those services would end up saving her life—twice.
Ms. McCord had always led an active, healthy lifestyle. That changed in 2001 as she began to feel not sick, per se, but simply unwell. “I would always ride my bike in the mornings before work,” she recalls. “And I didn’t feel like doing that. It was odd because that had always been like bliss for me.” That unfamiliar disinterest in her former source of bliss, along with swollen lymph nodes in her neck, prompted her to see her doctor.
Surgery yielded a negative diagnosis—a false negative, as it turned out. In 2002, with her symptoms refusing to abate, Ms. McCord returned to her doctor and received a different diagnosis: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“The diagnosis was a complete shock,” she says. “I had no experience with cancer or a family history of it.”
Ms. McCord began a six-month regimen of chemotherapy and additional radiation at a local hospital, with unsatisfying results. The next step, her doctors told her, was a bone marrow transplant at UAB. But Ms. McCord is “one of those people who wants to know everything,” she says. “I traveled internationally for a second and third opinion. The doctors said that they could do what I needed—but that UAB could do it too, and that I should go home and have it done there.”
Ms. McCord came to the UAB Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) unit in 2003 for an autologous transplant, in which her own stem cells were removed and then returned to her body after treatment. She describes the experience as “intense, but everyone there was wonderful. I thank God for the doctors and nurses in the BMT unit and what they do to save people’s lives.”
A MIRACLE DRUG
After her successful transplant, life for Ms. McCord returned to normal. She became involved in the cancer community, volunteering in the Patient Resource Library at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. Having regained her passion for athletic activities, she ran a half-marathon for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in 2008.
In 2009, life changed again, this time beginning with a nagging, persistent cough. When she’d become so sick that she was unable to swallow, she returned to her doctor once again. A two-week hospital stay and extensive testing confirmed that the cancer had returned.
The tumor’s location eliminated surgery as an option. This brought Ms. McCord back to the BMT unit at UAB for another bone marrow transplant—but this time, they would be unable to use her stem cells. She would have to endure the often lengthy and arduous process of finding a viable bone marrow donor.
Ms. McCord did have one other option, however. Cancer Center senior scientist and hematologist-oncologist Andres Forero, M.D., was leading a clinical trial involving a Hodgkin’s lymphoma drug known as SGN-35. “The thought that there was something very promising other than another bone marrow transplant was wonderful,” Ms. McCord says. “It sounded like a miracle.”
Before committing to the trial, Ms. McCord met with Sabrina Gilreath, another of Dr. Forero’s patients with Hodgkin’s lymphoma who was participating in the trial and the first patient in the United States to receive SGN-35. Mrs. Gilreath talked with Ms. McCord about the effects of the trial on her cancer and on her life, and she encouraged Ms. McCord to participate if she met the eligibility requirements.
Ms. McCord qualified, and the results were immediate. “I had my first CAT scan just a few weeks into treatment, and there was already a 54-percent improvement,” she says. “After three months, I was in complete remission. UAB had saved my life—again.”
COUNTING HER BLESSINGS
Today, Ms. McCord continues to return to the Cancer Center every 12 weeks for follow-up scans as part of the trial. She also receives post-cancer care through the UAB Supportive Care and Survivorship Clinic, under Cancer Center associate scientist Elizabeth Kvale, M.D., to attend to her personal and emotional health after her decade of treatment. “She specializes in ‘leftover’ issues related to the treatment, rather than the cancer itself,” Ms. McCord says. “It’s comfort care for those who remain well and for those like me who want to make the best possible future with their ‘new normal’ condition.”
Ms. McCord’s “new normal” includes gardening, traveling and quality time with her husband of 10 years, Brian Shaw, whom she credits with greatly helping her during her cancer treatment. “Brian has the greatest sense of humor, and he just takes everything in stride,” she says. “I’m very blessed and fortunate to have ‘Saint Brian’ in my life.”
Ms. McCord plans to write a book about her experience. “I want to write about this life-changing journey—the people you meet, the emotions and the change in perspective,” she says. “The human body is miraculously resilient, and we don’t even think about all it does until we get sick and are focused on recovery. It’s humbling to realize that.”
Ms. McCord considers it a blessing that she was able to participate in the clinical trial that saved her life. She’s quick to recommend such studies to others. “I’d do it again in a minute, because I know I might not be here today if not for that trial,” she says.
She also credits cancer with bringing a sense of patience and clarity to her life. “I’ve become calm about things and learned that fear is the enemy,” she says. “I’ve learned how important it is to be there for people when they need you, like so many were for me when I was going through treatment. It’s a gift to be able to spend time with people. When I count my blessings, I think what a gift it is to be alive.”
By: Josh Till