He’s had eight spinal taps. He experienced several attempts to administer chemotherapy through a mechanism implanted in his brain. And, after radiation, he’s endured harmful side-effects from a potent medication. Yet, Army Veteran John Ellis remains optimistic about beating his leukemia. That’s thanks to an innovative immunotherapy treatment recommended by Dr. Jessica Schmit.

Schmit is North Florida/South Georgia VA’s Hematology and Oncology Section Chief.

“Immunotherapy was recommended to Mr. Ellis because his leukemia did not respond to conventional chemotherapy,” Schmit recalled.

Ellis is the first patient at the medical center to be treated with this approach to defeating leukemia and has successfully completed his first phase of the treatment process.

What was fatal is now treatable

“Immunotherapy has dramatically changed the landscape of cancer care,” she said. “What used to be considered universally fatal is now treatable with novel therapies. We hope that with further research and advancements in cancer care, we will be able to offer the chance of cure to all cancer patients.”

Ellis explains that immunotherapy was his last hope and that without it he would not make it to Christmas.

“The only thing that I can tell people is that if this buys me more time, it’ll be worth it,” he said. “I’m tired, but I’ll do this for as long as I need to.”

Immunotherapy treatments take several months to administer. Doctors divide them into four phases, with two-week breaks in between.

“I am looking forward to my birthday on Veterans Day this year,” Ellis said. “All of my treatments will be completed by then and I should be able to enjoy the holidays with my family.”

Attributes success to committed staff

Ellis attributes the success of his treatments to committed staff who won’t give up on him.

“Everyone has been super attentive and willing to learn how to administer this treatment,” he added. “We’ve had plenty of meetings and staff have been vigilant in getting trained to do what they need to do to give me this treatment. They’ve even sat right outside my door to watch me during my first two days of treatment just to be sure that I had no other adverse reactions.”

Nurse Lawanna Beyer assists Ellis with the completion of his first phase of immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy is treatment that utilizes your own body’s immune system to fight a disease. There are several types of immunotherapies designed to either boost or stimulate the immune system or mimic immune system proteins to help the body better recognize and attack cancer cells.

In this case, the immunotherapy specifically helps to engage the body’s own cytotoxic T-cells to attack the cancerous B-cells in Leukemia.

Pharmacist Paige May explains that the unique challenges Ellis’ treatment presents is in the actual administration and toxicity management of the immunotherapy.

Insisted on treatment at VA

“VA medical centers rarely administer this type of treatment,” May explained. “Patients are often referred to transplant centers.”

However, Ellis and his wife have insisted on receiving the treatments at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville because of their close relationships with Ellis’ health care providers.

“We could’ve gone anywhere else to get this done, but I wanted to come here because I was comfortable here,” Ellis said. “I feel like I know the staff very well and trust them with my life.”

According to May, Ellis is well known to Hematology and Oncology staff and has a fighting spirit.

“Throughout a complicated disease course, Mr. Ellis has maintained a positive attitude and spirit,” May said. “When walking into the hospital to begin his first infusion, knowing he was the first patient to receive it here, he was the one to reassure us. He said, ‘Don’t worry. I am going to walk out of here.’”

Prepared to administer complex treatment to additional leukemia patients

The amount of thought and preparation required to treat Ellis’ disease was daunting, but everyone involved rose to the challenge.

“Everyone embraced the specialized training and was willing to learn and adapt to help Mr. Ellis,” May added. “Many services, physicians, nurses and pharmacists were involved. The success of his first cycle of treatment is a testament to the strength of our entire team. We’re working together to adapt to this very difficult and challenging situation. This just proves that we can provide even the most complex treatments to help Veterans.”

The medical staff is proud of its work. It’s ready to administer the complex treatment to additional leukemia patients at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center.

“Even though a complete cure is very rare, I am incredibly grateful to the staff here at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center. They’ve given me every opportunity to beat this thing,” said Ellis.

Doctors use immunotherapy to treat many different cancers. Most cancer patients will be a candidate at some point in their treatment. Furthermore, the medical center has used numerous types of immunotherapy over the years and continues to implement innovative ways to treat Veterans fighting cancer.

The North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System is one of the nation’s leading VA health care systems. It employs more than 5,800 medical professionals and support staff. Those individuals provide high quality care to Veterans residing throughout North Florida and South Georgia. The organization operates 14 facilities, including two medical centers in Gainesville and Lake City. In addition, a domiciliary and clinics are located throughout a 50-county service area. 

Related post: VA celebrates Cancer Survivor Month

By Melanie L. Thomas, MBA, is a public affairs officer for the VA Office of Communications and Outreach

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Published on Jul. 21, 2021

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