Stem cell transplant puts patient’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma in remission

By Margaret Tucker

Dec. 1, 2020 – Kalesha Lewis is not your typical patient. She’s a nurse herself, with a professional understanding of disease. So, when the staff at a local emergency room dismissed the large lump in her neck as a goiter, she was skeptical.

Kalesha Lewis Web“I really pay attention to my body,” Lewis said.

Lewis knew that a goiter is an enlarged thyroid gland. She knew that she didn’t have any of the symptoms associated with thyroid problems. And she was right – the “goiter” actually turned out to be a case of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now, after undergoing an autologous stem cell transplant at Siteman Cancer Center, she’s in remission and ready to move on with her life.

Lewis first noticed the lump on Jan. 19, 2018. It was a Friday evening like any other – she had just arrived home from her job at a dialysis center and was looking forward to spending the weekend with her son and daughter. But then, she happened to glance in a mirror and saw that her neck looked swollen. It hadn’t been swollen that morning.

“Now my brain’s just racing 100 miles an hour,” Lewis said.

She headed to the emergency room, where the team didn’t take her concerns seriously.

Determined to get an accurate diagnosis, Lewis eventually had the lump evaluated by an ear, nose, and throat doctor. The physician performed several biopsies before delivering shocking news: the lump was Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that no one else in Lewis’ family had ever developed.

Initially, Lewis’ lymphoma seemed to respond to chemotherapy.  But, by August 2019, the cancer had returned.

At this point, Lewis got some unexpected news from her insurance company. According to the terms of her plan, treatment at Siteman Cancer Center would be covered 100 percent. In a stroke of good fortune, Lewis found that it was cheaper for her to undergo treatment at the top-ranked cancer center in the state.

Lewis immediately transferred to Siteman, where she became a patient of Washington University medical oncologist Todd Fehniger, MD, PhD. Fehniger soon began to prepare her for an autologous stem cell transplant. As a nurse, Lewis appreciated the care he took to answer her questions.

“At the initial visit, he explained everything in depth, every step of the way,” Lewis said. “This is the plan, this is what we’re going to do.

In March 2020, Lewis’ stem cells were collected. She was admitted to the hospital and underwent a strong course of chemotherapy to destroy all of the remaining cancer cells in her body. Then, her stem cells were returned to her in an IV infusion.

“It doesn’t hurt,” Lewis said. “It’s just like getting a bag of fluid.”

Lewis spent several weeks in the hospital. With two children and four dogs at home, she leaned on her loved ones for support.

“My mom, my guy, and my cousin – they were all a big help,” Lewis said.

The staff at the hospital recognized that Lewis took a keen interest in her own care. The nurses recorded her lab values on a chart in her room every day, and Lewis was always eager to see the new numbers.

“I knew I had to get to 10 to get discharged,” Lewis said. “And I looked at that paper every morning.”

Lewis was pleased with the care that she received from the physicians and nurses at Siteman.

“The nurses were prompt. Every time I moved, they were there,” Lewis said. “I think they were really good. They listened.”

Today, Lewis is back in remission. She still has regular PET scans to monitor her condition, but she’s optimistic about what the future holds. She’s excited about an upcoming trip to Dubai, where she plans to ride a camel and enjoy a BBQ in the desert.

“I’m glad I have my energy,” Lewis said.