A Patient-Doctor Bond Forged in Fighting Follicular Lymphoma  

Written by: Saul Wisnia

Throughout the 20 years Robert Jenkins has been living with follicular lymphoma, he has been through many different treatments — from traditional chemotherapy protocols to innovative approaches like CAR T-cell therapy and bispecific antibodies. His lengthy survivorship has allowed Jenkins to benefit from new advances as they’ve emerged, and along with his wife, Lorna, one individual has been there for him nearly every step of the way: his oncologist Eric Jacobsen, MD

A second-year fellow when he first took over Jenkins’ cancer care in 2004, Jacobsen is now clinical director of Adult Lymphoma in the Center for Hematologic Oncology at Dana-Farber/Brigham Cancer Center. Jenkins, 61, knows that Jacobsen and his team are always on the cutting edge of new treatment options for follicular lymphoma — a slow-growing form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma marked by the formation of clusters of cancerous B cells in the body’s lymph nodes.  

When Jenkins stops responding to one treatment, there is always another to try. And, just as importantly, there is someone to answer his and Lorna’s questions, concerns, and occasional late-night phone calls. 

“When you are going through stuff like this, you feel like you need somebody who understands,” says Jenkins. “Dr. Jacobsen is always so patient. He just says, ‘This is what I’m here for.’”  

After all their years together, Jenkins and Jacobsen have forged a relationship that feels more familial than medical.  

“It’s really phenomenal,” says Jacobsen of their bond. “Robert and Lorna have become almost like family, and every time we need a new therapy for Robert, one gets approved. Most of the things we’ve treated him with did not exist when I met him. It’s gratifying to see all the milestones they’ve been able to reach over the years.” 

In the midst of CAR T-cell therapy in Feb. 2022, Robert Jenkins (right) met with Eric Jacobsen, MD, at Dana-Farber.
In the midst of CAR T-cell therapy in Feb. 2022, Robert Jenkins (right) met with Eric Jacobsen, MD, at Dana-Farber.

Empathy and honesty 

A Boston native and lifelong resident, Jenkins was working for the city’s water department in the 1990s when he and Lorna met at her family’s home. “He came to fix a leak, and never left,” she says with a smile. 

In 2003, Lorna, who isa nurse, noticed a hard bump on the right side of Roberts’ neck. She expressed concern, but he initially shook it off as a product of his active lifestyle. 

“I thought it was just swollen from lifting weights or doing my martial arts,” recalls Jenkins. “I kept pushing it away.” 

By this point Jenkins was working as a bus driver and supervisor at Boston Children’s Hospital, where one of the nurses there noticed the bump and asked if she could touch his neck. Once she did, she recommended Jenkins go to the emergency department immediately to get it checked.  

“I went in right after work, and the doctor told me they thought I had lymphoma,” says Jenkins. “They did all the tests and confirmed it, then sent me to get a biopsy.” 

That led Jenkins to Dana-Farber, where he and Lorna first met Jacobsen. The doctor explained that Robert’s tumor was contained to one area in his neck and was not growing. Because follicular lymphoma is highly treatable, and patients typically live many years with the disease, Jacobsen said the best approach at the time was surveillance — “watching and waiting” with regular check-ups, scans, and blood tests. 

Four years later, in 2008, tests revealed the tumor was growing. Jacobsen put Jenkins on his first chemotherapy protocol, and helped him adjust to the physical and emotional roller coaster of active treatment. These included allergic reactions to some drugs, along with mood swings that necessitated some of those late-night phone calls.  

“Dr. Jacobsen showed us such empathy,” Lorna Davis Jenkins remembers. “That made his bond with Rob so much stronger.” 

The couple also appreciated the openness and honesty Jacobsen provided. 

“As the cancer progressed, he told me what to expect and what options were available,” says Jenkins. “He knew that I was scared, but we worked through it together.”  

Robert and Lorna enjoyed a Boston Celtics game in April 2023.
Robert and Lorna enjoyed a Boston Celtics game in April 2023.

CAR T and beyond 

Just as Jenkins was beginning to become discouraged, in 2021, another option presented itself. The Food and Drug Administration approved the first CAR T-cell therapy for patients with relapsed or refractory forms of indolent follicular lymphoma. Dana-Farber Brigham became a certified treatment center for the therapy, and Jacobsen encouraged Jenkins to try it. 

“I felt like a new person on CAR T,” says Jenkins. “It was a life-changing treatment for me.” 

Unfortunately, its effectiveness did not last the five years Jenkins and Jacobsen hoped for. After 18 months, the tumor resumed growing again, and it was time for another shift — this time to bispecific antibodies. These drugs, modeled after the body’s own disease-fighting antibodies, can bind to two different cancer cells at once rather than the typical one-to-one pairing. Many patients go into remission on bispecific antibodies, but in Jenkins’ case his first infusion in late 2023 led to itching and redness of his skin as well as vomiting. 

“I always tell Dr. Jacobsen, ‘I know you’re doing your best, it’s not your fault,’” says Jenkins. “When you come to grips with cancer, you come to grips with life. I’ve done that.” 

This is why, after consulting with his family and Jacobsen, Jenkins decided to forego starting another treatment protocol for now. He wants to enjoy life with Lorna, their three children and their spouses, and their three grandchildren without worrying about allergies or other side-effects.  

Robert Jenkins (right) had plenty to celebrate on Father's Day, 2023, including (from left) his wife Lorna and grandchildren Christian, Amara, and Kayden.
Robert Jenkins (right) had plenty to celebrate on Father’s Day, 2023, including (from left) his wife Lorna and grandchildren Christian, Amara, and Kayden.

The family has built a large house in Atlanta, and Rob and Lorna now split the year between there and Boston. They recently celebrated their 30th anniversary, and are continuing to support each other, dealing both with Robert’s challenges and a recent breast cancer diagnosis for Lorna.   

“We stay in touch with Dana-Farber,” says Jenkins. “I get blood work done every month, and they send the results up to Boston. Then, every three or four months, we see Dr. Jacobsen in person.” 

So far, all has gone well during this latest watch-and-wait period. Jacobsen says that even patients who have experienced recurrences of follicular lymphoma like Jenkins can safely go through extended stretches of surveillance. 

“If patients don’t have very large lymph nodes, their blood counts are okay, and they’re not symptomatic with issues like fatigue or night sweats attributable to the lymphoma, you don’t necessarily need to rush them back into treatment,” says Jacobsen.  

And that’s news Jenkins likes to hear. 

“My counts look sharp, like there is no cancer,” Jenkins says. “I used to have no energy and felt depressed, and now I feel strong and healthy. I am leaning on my faith in God, my family, and Dana-Farber to get me through these challenging times.” 

10 thoughts on “A Patient-Doctor Bond Forged in Fighting Follicular Lymphoma  ”

  1. Thank you Dr. Jacobsen for everything you did for my brother Robert Jenkins and still doing. We need more doctors like you that take time to look into other medicines that could help him. I am so bless to have my brother still here due to your hard work and effort. My sister in law Lorna is a wonderful woman and glad to have her in my life as well. She gives good advises and only the best solution when it comes to an health issue. May god keep both of them in good health. Thanks again and may god keep you in good health Dr. Jacobsen to continue on with your hard work.

  2. Reading this story about my uncle and all his challenges he endured fighting with CANCER, made me teary eyes. Many days I thought he was going to leave us, but he is a fighter and GOD was not ready for him. I’m very thankful for his team of doctors to go above and beyond. And never gave up on finding a treatment that will work for him. Uncle I love you! And Auntie Lorna love how you fought with him through this battle and never gave up hope.💙💙💙💙

  3. Love to everyone. His BiBig sister Carol jenkiI read the story on my brother Robert jenkins he is alot stronger and more alive with life I gave that’s to his Doctor and everyone at Dana Farber for saving my brother life

  4. Dr.Jacobsen is the best! You are definitely in the right place!!! God bless you and your beautiful family.

  5. We have known Rob and Lorna for many,many years their Journey has always been a True Inspiration to us all. We Love them Dearly. Darnell & Shelia Battle.

  6. We have been friends of Rob & Lorna for many, many Year’s. Watching their Journey has always been and Inspiration to us. We Love You Both. Darnell & Shelia Battle

  7. Great to hear Rob and Lorna’s story, and battle with cancer.
    I too, am privileged to have been treated by Dr Jacobsen for follicular Lymphoma for the last 9 years. And doing well. Dana Farber is blessed to have such a dedicated, wise and compassionate doctor and gentleman.
    Thank you Rob and Lorna for being such an inspiration, and thank you Dr J for years of amazing treatment.
    Peter Tarter

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