This November, Marge Reinhardt will celebrate not only Thanksgiving but a major personal milestone: her fifth anniversary of being cancer-free, thanks to her participation in an immunotherapy clinical trial for metastatic recurrent throat cancer.
Mrs. Reinhardt’s medical journey started soon after a much-anticipated family journey to Europe in June 2015. She and her husband, Paul, took their four children on a trip through Germany and Austria. While in Innsbruck, they stopped to snap a family photo of the six of them against the breathtaking Alpine scenery. “It was a wonderful trip, to have us all together,” she says.
After returning home, though, the picture changed completely for Mrs. Reinhardt and her family. Her throat became very sore. “I thought it was something I caught in Europe or on the plane,” she says. When it persisted for more than a week, she consulted an ENT who recommended a biopsy.
The day of the biopsy brought tragic news that shook her world: Her son, Evan, passed away unexpectedly. And the biopsy results showed she had an HPV-associated throat cancer. “I was living in hell,” she says.
A referral sent Mrs. Reinhardt to Smilow Cancer Hospital, where she consulted with Barbara Burtness, MD, a medical oncologist who has made it her life’s mission to help people diagnosed with head and neck cancers and who is a leading researcher in the field.
“Dr. Burtness was so caring,” Mrs. Reinhardt says. “She was also very professional. My cancer was pretty aggressive, so she wanted to start treatment as soon as possible.” On Aug. 1, Mrs. Reinhardt started a regimen of radiation five days a week and chemotherapy once a week for seven weeks.
It was an incredibly trying period. Mrs. Reinhardt lost a significant amount of weight as she grappled with her grief and her treatment. For a few weeks she was on a feeding tube to supplement her nutrition. “I really struggled,” she says. “Dr. Burtness was very supportive.”
By the spring of 2016, Mrs. Reinhardt was feeling better. But her weight loss affected her blood pressure medication, and in June she passed out at home. In the emergency room, a physician scanned her lungs; the results were concerning enough that they were forwarded on to her primary care physician, and then to Dr. Burtness. The diagnosis: The cancer had recurred, this time in her lungs.
Dr. Burtness encouraged Mrs. Reinhardt to consider enrolling in a clinical study for the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab. This type of drug, known as a checkpoint inhibitor, helps make cancer cells more vulnerable to attack by a patient’s own immune system. Mrs. Reinhardt agreed and was assigned to the arm of the trial that paired pembrolizumab with chemotherapy.
After one dose of pembrolizumab, Mrs. Reinhardt developed pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs that can be a side effect of immunotherapy. While she was in the hospital, Dr. Burtness visited her to deliver unexpected and incredible news.
“She told me, ‘We’ve done a scan of your lungs, and I don’t see any signs of cancer,’” Mrs. Reinhardt says. “One dose of immunotherapy took away the cancer in a snap.” Once released from the hospital, she continued the chemotherapy regimen of the trial. Her last session was November 6, 2016; she has been cancer free ever since.
A month later, Mrs. Reinhardt and her husband returned to Europe, to visit their youngest son, Peter, during his study abroad term in Denmark. “I felt so happy,” she says.
She has resumed her old hobbies – hiking, alpine and cross-country skiing – as well as continued with a new passion, yoga, that helped her regain her balance and strength during her cancer treatment. “Life is short,” she says. “I am grateful to have another day.”
The clinical trial that Mrs. Reinhardt participated in laid the groundwork for the FDA’s approval in June 2019 of pembrolizumab in combination with chemotherapy as a first-line treatment for all patients with metastatic recurrent head and neck squamous cell carcinoma and as a single agent in patients whose tumors show the PD-L1 protein. Now other patients have broader access to the treatment that performed so quickly and effectively for Mrs. Reinhardt.
“Marge highlights the enormous power of immunotherapy in some patients,” Dr. Burtness says. “The challenge for our field is to figure out how to identify patients like her who respond so well to immunotherapy, and how do we make everyone respond that way.”