“I first felt nodes in my neck as early as 2005,” said Steven Montner, MD, associate professor of radiology at the University of Chicago Medicine. “But, being a doctor, I wasn’t going to go to one.”
Montner, who also went to medical school and completed his residency at the university, had a feeling something might be wrong. But, it wasn’t until 2011, when he started losing weight and the nodes became more visible, that he finally decided to get a biopsy.
The test revealed mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), a rare type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), or cancer of the white blood cells, that represents just 6 percent of all cases of NHL diagnosed in the U.S. In 85 percent of cases, MCL is caused by a genetic mutation on chromosomes 11 and 14, which triggers an overproduction of cyclin D1, a protein known to cause tumor cell growth. The disease starts in the lymph nodes, but can spread to the spleen, marrow and blood, throat, liver and gastrointestinal tract.
“Mantle cell lymphoma has one of the poorer prognoses, although it can be variable, and it’s not one that is common, so there is not as much data about treatment and long-term survival,” said Montner, who has the 11;14 genetic mutation.
Physicians often wait to begin treatment for lymphoma until a patient begins to present more prominent symptoms. In January 2012, a year after diagnosis, Montner took a 6-month leave of absence to begin chemotherapy.
“I considered myself a pretty good patient as doctors go,” Montner said. “I had faith in the doctors taking care of me. I just listened to what they told me because I didn’t want to have to worry about what they were doing – whether it was the right thing.”
When his original oncologist left the institution, Montner was placed under the care of Justin Kline, MD, assistant professor of medicine. Kline, who is a hematologist and oncologist, specializes in immunotherapy, which aims to harness the body’s immune system to fight disease.
“We study the pathways or the mechanisms that blood cancers, like lymphoma and leukemia, use to evade or hide from the immune system,” Kline said. “We try to identify those pathways, and try to identify strategies to get around them.”
Kline said that while the incidence of lymphomas has been rising, the survival rates have also increased.
“Fifteen years ago the average survival rate of patients with mantle cell lymphoma would have been about two and a half years,” he said. “Now it’s at least double that. Part of that is because of stem cell transplants.”
A stem cell transplant helps the body recover after chemotherapy or radiation, which kills cancer cells but can also permanently damage healthy cells.
As part of his treatment, Montner received an autologous stem cell transplant. This type of transplant involves harvesting the patient’s own stem cells from bone marrow before chemotherapy, and freezing them. After chemotherapy is used to destroy cancer cells, the stem cells are injected back into the patient. The stem cells help the patient’s bone marrow and blood cells regenerate and return to healthy levels.
In April 2012, Montner had a severe complication called sepsis, which is a whole-body inflammatory response to an infection. As a result, he required admission to the intensive care unit (ICU), followed by physical rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. In May, however, he received his stem cell transplant. After six months of treatment, he returned to work on July 2, 2012 as originally planned.
“One of the things I’ve done during my period of recovery here is I’ve tried to stay positive,” Montner said. “I really learned, somehow, to accept things the way they are in life. The whole experience of getting control of my health prior to chemotherapy and going through this really prepared me for just accepting life on life’s terms.”
This year he helped organize an annual luncheon for stem cell transplant survivors to be held at the University of Chicago Medicine on October 17, at which he will be the keynote speaker. He has also been an active participant in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s annual Light The Night Walk, which will take place on October 24 in Chicago’s Grant Park.
“His disease and his treatment have spurred him to do good things for others with lymphoma,” Kline said. “He’s a great example of a patient who has done well, but who also has given back to other patients.”
Montner’s personal life has also flourished in the years since his recovery. He got married last year and, in lieu of a traditional registry, he and his husband asked guests to donate to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. They raised more than $5,000. Eager to fully embrace life, Montner has also made travel a priority, with upcoming trips to Budapest and Asia planned.
Montner knows his lymphoma, which isn’t curable, will come back eventually. But, he doesn’t worry about what the future might hold. He does, however, make sure to visit the doctor when needed, and aims to stay healthy and positive.
“I think I’m now really living life for years in which I wasn’t,” Montner said. “It took this to really get my life in a position where I wanted to live every moment as if it’s my last.”
September is leukemia and lymphoma awareness month. To learn more visit: http://www.lls.org/