Jerry Jalbert is always up for new adventures. He did not expect that non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) would be one of them, but with the help of CAR T-cell therapy that keeps his cancer at bay, the 73-year-old professional photographer-turned-baker-turned-forest checkpoint operator is continuing to enjoy life’s many journeys alongside his wife, Ethel.
“We are not letting it stop us,” says Jalbert, who received CAR T-cell treatment and a stem cell transplant at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC). “I’m feeling great — still traveling, hiking, working in my garden, and doing chores around the house. There is plenty to be thankful for.”
The list of those Jerry credits for his circumstances starts with Ethel, a registered nurse and his wife of 48 years. Then there are his caregivers, both at DF/BWCC in Boston and in his native St. John, Maine, the town “a stone’s throw from the Canadian border” where he and Ethel live. Volunteer pilots with Patient AirLift Services (PALS) fly the couple to and from Jerry’s DF/BWCC appointments in Boston, where Hospitality Homes has provided discounted lodging.
Even with these resources, Jalbert faced many challenges after his September 2015 diagnosis. He initially responded well to chemotherapy delivered by an oncologist in Maine, but when he relapsed after six months that doctor referred him to DF/BWCC and Oreofe Odejide, MD, MPH. Odejide recommended and prepared him for an autologous stem cell transplant, but a year after undergoing this arduous procedure and returning home, in October 2017, Jalbert felt a lump under his jawbone.
A biopsy confirmed it: he had relapsed again.
From TV to CAR T
Jalbert assumed his treatment options had been exhausted, but then a new possibility emerged.
“The night before meeting with my local oncologist, I saw a TV news report where they interviewed a guy with the same diagnosis as mine who was mowing his lawn and planning to take his grandkids skiing,” Jalbert recalls. “They said he had done CAR T-cell therapy, which I didn’t know anything about. Neither did my doctor in Maine, who recommended we call Dr. Odejide.”
Within days, Jalbert was back in Odejide’s DF/BWCC office learning about the CAR T-cell process — in which T cells are genetically engineered to retrain the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells that have learned over time to evade it. In December 2017, Jalbert’s T cells were removed, sent to California for genetic reengineering, and then reinjected into his bloodstream in January 2018. By late February, Jalbert was back in Maine making plans with his own grandchildren.
“While I was disappointed about Jerry’s relapse, I was relieved that CAR T-cell therapy, an effective treatment option, was available for him,” says Odejide. “Jerry’s relapse occurred within days of the FDA approving CAR T-cell therapy for relapsed/refractory diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, based on an unprecedented response rate of 82%. One month after he received CAR T-cell therapy, we confirmed that Jerry was in complete remission, and I’m thrilled that he continues to do well more than 18 months later.”
Trees and tall grass
In addition to the excellent treatment he received at DF/BWCC, Jalbert praises the lines of communication between Odejide and his Maine caregivers. Ethel says that her nursing background helped her adjust to assisting Jerry as his immune system recovered from both the stem cell transplant and CAR T-cell therapy, but is also thankful to support services that DF/BWCC provided to lessen the logistical and financial challenges during their long stays in Boston.
“He was so sick that all he could think about was getting better,” says Ethel. “I had to worry about taking care of him, the house, and getting him everything he needed. Finding those other avenues of help made the journey easier.”
Now the Jalberts are embarking on another adventure. Ethel did not want Jerry returning to his baking job because of the heavy lifting involved, so the couple took on a part-time gig that ensures them more time together. Every other week, they staff the entrance to a privately-owned portion of the North Maine Woods — living in a small cabin with no internet connection or electricity. There is a hospital nearby, but Jerry jokes that “I’ve got my nurse with me.”
By the time another couple relieves them, and the Jalberts head home, it’s time for Jerry to mow the lawn again.