New immunotherapy saved this mom's life: 'I never gave up hope'

Today, Emily Dumler is healthy and back home with her family. This is her story.
by Donna Freydkin / / Source: TODAY
Emily Dumler
Emily Dumler, during her life-saving cancer treatment, and with her husband, Scott, and their three children.Courtesy of Emily Dumler

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Emily Dumler, now 36, enjoyed everything about being a stay-at-home mother of three small children — until a diagnosis of an aggressive and deadly form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma threatened her life. Emily was given new hope in July 2015, when she became one of three people in the world to take part in a pioneering gene therapy clinical trial. Today, she is cancer-free and working as the director of religious education at her Catholic church in Kansas.

This is her story.

One morning in August 2013 we were with friends, doing a little play date with my three little kids, Hudson, Emily and Lola. It was summer and we were just enjoying our time together. But I started to feel like I had an upset stomach. When I went to the restroom, I had blood in my stool. So I called the doctor and they told me to get to urgent care. They admitted me and I ended up being in the hospital for about 43 days.

I was told that my platelets were extremely low. For a while, I don't think I realized how serious it was. I remember being very anxious to get out and get home. But, unfortunately, the platelets just wouldn't cooperate and it wasn't getting better.

The doctors were mystified.

When I was in the hospital, it was my my daughter Lola's first day of kindergarten and my son Hudson was starting preschool. It broke my heart to miss their first days of school.

My husband Scott was terrified. One night he started crying. I've seen my husband cry twice — on our wedding day. And then this day.

"Emily, this is not good," he told me. "If we don't get your platelets up, you're going to die."

I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a treatable cancer. It was amazing to be able to move forward — not that it was easy. You lose your hair. You're very sick. You have a very poor immune system and have to really be careful being around your own kids.

A few months after I finished my chemotherapy treatment, the lymphoma was back. I was in such disbelief.

When you fail or when you relapse with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the next step is to do a stem-cell transplant. For what I had, they give you the hardest chemo imaginable; then they give you stem cells to keep you alive, to keep you from dying. I was so weak. I was down to about 88 pounds.

It felt like my future was disappearing before my eyes.

Our kids never really knew how bad it was. We told them that I had cancer, explaining it in such basic terms that they weren't frightened by it.

A chance for a cure

I was running out of options, but I didn't know it at the time. My husband Scott told me later that the doctors had given me six months to live.

My doctor sat down with me and told me about a new way of treating cancer that might be my best chance for a cure — an immunotherapy called CAR-T, or chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy.

My doctor called MD Anderson in Houston, where I had received my stem cell transplant, and learned about a clinical trial for lymphoma. I qualified for the trial and became the third patient in the world enrolled in this groundbreaking treatment with the drug Yescarta.

CAR-T is an immunotherapy, which basically means they are harnessing your own immune system to fight the cancer. The treatment was very difficult and it affects your brain and brain function.

There was a day or two where I couldn't answer simple questions. It was only 48 hours, but for my husband it was an eternity and very scary.

One month after my clinical trial, Scott and I returned to Houston for my scans. It was hard to sleep that night waiting for the results from the doctor. The scans showed no signs of cancer!

And two-and-a-half years later, I am still cancer-free.

Today, I am doing great. I haven't felt this good in years. I enjoy each and every second of life.

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