Faith over fear - Part 2 “They call it a miracle; could this be the cure for cancer?”

"Linda and George, tired from the months in Houston, were walking through the Huntsville International Airport to claim their bags when they noticed several men with American Flags standing at attention in one of the main aisles of the airport. "I wonder what's going on?" thought Linda. "Welcome Home, George!" said the ranking member of the Patriot Guards. The Terry's were overcome with emotion as the men saluted George Terry who flew top secret missions during the Vietnam war. 

George Terry’s story is just one example of the millions of people who have endured this life-threatening disease. The elements of his story are both different, and in some ways the same, as others who have survived both the disease and the treatments that help people to overcome it. What is different about George’s story is that the newest advances in modern medicine show promising evidence that this treatment might very well be the beginning of the cure for a disease that touches most people in some form in their lifetime, be that personally or involving a family member or a friend.

According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 39.3 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer of any site at some point during their lifetime, based on 2014-2016 data. Estimated new cases of the type of cancer George experienced, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, is projected to be as high as 74,200, in 2019. This accounts for 4.2% of all new cancer cases. 

Based on 2014-2016 data the National Cancer Institute website reveals that approximately 2.2 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma at some point during their lifetime. There were an estimated 694,704 people living with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in the United States in 2016.

The National Cancer Institute explains that Lymphoma is cancer that begins in cells of the lymph system. The lymph system is part of the immune system, which helps the body fight infection and disease. Because lymph tissue is found all through the body, lymphoma can begin almost anywhere.

The two main types of lymphoma are Hodgkin Lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL). These can occur in both children and adults.

There are many different types of NHL that form from different types of white blood cells (B-cells, T-cells, NK cells). Most types of NHL form from B-cells. NHL may be indolent (slow-growing) or aggressive (fast-growing). The most common types of NHL in adults are diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, which is usually aggressive, and follicular lymphoma, which is usually indolent.

Fortunately, George was accepted into a clinical trial at MD Anderson which oversees care for the hospital’s CAR T-cell therapy patients, is the first stand-alone immune effector cellular therapy program to earn accreditation from the Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy.

“Unlike chemotherapy, this treatment is a one-time procedure,” Linda explained. “Once the cells are reintroduced into the bloodstream, it automatically starts battling the cancer.”  CAR T-cell therapy’s side effects can be serious and even life-threatening, especially if left untreated. George experienced  almost all of them with the exception of organ failure. He was monitored by specialists who were with him around the clock for the first few days, and then monitored closely for weeks. 

According to the MD Anderson website concerning this therapy, one of the most serious side effects is cytokine release syndrome. Cytokines are chemical messengers T-cells produce to help organize the immune system’s fight against disease. In cytokine release syndrome, too many cytokines are produced. This can lead to a dangerously high fever, dangerously low blood pressure, difficulty breathing and organ failure. After infusion, doctors monitor for this condition and have effective treatments for patients who develop it.

CAR T-Cell Therapy

CAR T-cell therapy uses a patient’s’ immune system to fight cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. Learn more about...

Linda stresses that not all candidates for this clinical trial suffer these side effects. George was one who did, but others have come through the treatment with fewer side effects than George experienced. “Some people go home in a week with no side effects, or very few,” she said.

CAR T-cell therapies can also have temporary but serious neurological effects, including confusion, slurred speech and seizures.

Other side effects include: low counts of red and white blood cells and platelets, another key blood component, chills and shaking, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

While these are the known side effects, CAR T-cell therapy is a new treatment and doctors continue monitoring patients to uncover any long-term impact on their bodies. (Information courtesy of MD Anderson’s website)

It is because of George Terry’s remission and good prognosis that this story was written, to give newly-diagnosed patients hope and to inform those who might already be eligible for these clinical trials of its existence.

The Hard Talk

Linda and George met in 1967 on a blind date at 44th and Potter Church of Christ in Little Rock, Arkansas. They have been happily married for 50 years, raising two sons and creating two businesses that employ 20-60 people on a rotating basis. Linda says that she is thankful for George because he is an exemplary husband, “He doesn’t cuss, drink or smoke and he has always been the rock in our family as well as his family after his father died. He’s been our spiritual leader as well as a Christian example of what a husband should be,” she said. George’s diagnosis was a shock to the entire family but especially to her.

Before leaving for Texas, George and Linda sat down and had the dreaded, “Hard Talk” discussing legal, business and personal matters, including funeral arrangements and what Linda should do in the event that George didn’t make it. It was emotionally painful, and a very hard thing to do, but the Terry’s knew that there was a possibility that George wouldn’t be coming back home. Another hurdle caused by cancer, it just had to be dealt with. They had to get people to witness and notarize a living will, a power of attorney and write down his healthcare wishes. Both prayed about the outcome, about making wise, informed decisions, all the while knowing that everything rested on God’s plan for them, and on the people who are working to eradicate this disease.

At one point Linda had the hard talk with her brother, too, and at the time it seemed to her that was the lowest point in her life. “Though I’d been through so much losing my brother, Gary, he was my hero, like a daddy, God showed me that you can get lower. There was no other way but to give God everything – George. I prayed that I knew He was in control and that He would give me the faith to weather this terrible storm.”

After the hard talk they both felt that things were in order and that they could proceed with whatever lay ahead of them. According to George, it would be a win-win situation, either way.  

The Lowest Point

After weeks of therapy following what his family describes as the lowest point in his life, they began to see something of the old George returning. Although their faith never wavered, it was a relief to know that their prayers had been answered. “I’ve never prayed so hard in my life,” said Brandon, who would often crawl up into bed with his dad, lending him the strength of the human touch, offering George love and encouragement at the worst of times.

“I’d never seen my parents experience fear of the kind they did when my dad was first diagnosed,” Brandon said. “It was tough seeing him so weak, but he’d always taught us to trust in God, so that’s what we did.”

According to Brandon, this experience has allowed him to see life in a different way. “I know what’s important now,” he says.

It would take weeks of therapy of all kinds to bring George back from the brink of death. He had to learn to walk, talk, eat, everything we do each day while taking it totally for granted. He remained stoic and steadfast in his faith the entire time, although Linda says it was hard to see him struggling, it was also wonderful to see him slowly recovering.

His next PET scan showed that he was in remission, meaning that no cancer showed up in his body at that time.

By Father’s Day, George was able to go out with his family for a meal and to do a limited amount of sightseeing. They went for cheeseburgers, and visited Galveston’s gray sand beaches.

“Father’s Day was everything wrapped into one,” recalls Shawn. George knew everybody; he enjoyed the day, and although he was weak there was a marked improvement over the previous weeks. They were all thankful that he was on the mend, “The one thing I learned in those weeks was that my dad, my mom and God had the battle won before it even started,” said Shawn.

“People talk about my dad’s faith, but it’s actually both of them. My mother has such strong faith, too, and I’ve never realized how strong she really is until this happened,” said Shawn. “I will always remember how they were so trusting of God, no matter how bad it got.”

Grandson, Bryson, shaved his head in support of his grandfather, who lost his hair due to the chemotherapy. In many ways, cancer patients become dependent on those who they have always taken care of. In George’s case, the family, especially his grandchildren, were of great comfort to him. Often Bryson would just lay close by, reaching out to touch him occasionally, offering his strength and his love.

Granddaughter Destinee Jones, who is a registered nurse and is currently studying at UAB to be a nurse practitioner, also offered comfort and could assist in George’s care once he was well enough to return to their temporary home in Houston. Her visits also allowed Linda to get some much needed rest, as she was always at George’s side and as the weeks and months went on, she grew more fatigued.

Destinee was beyond impressed with the MD Anderson facility. “I can’t say enough good things about them,” she said. “They answered every question, made us all comfortable and took excellent care of my Poppy,” she continued. “As far as a cure goes I feel like MDA is on a very good start and is radically changing the treatment of cancer in many ways. “

“From the day we found out, I tried to be calm and rational for everyone else even though in my heart coming from the medical field I knew what to expect and knew things would get hard,” Destinee admitted. “That night Poppy told me to just put my faith in God because ultimately it is His plan not ours. I prayed like I never had before and cried out to God to help him and help our family.”

“Poppy has always loved the hymn “It Is Well” and it’s always been my life’s anthem,” she continued. “That night and to this day that hymn is the only thing that gets me through a daily basis because ultimately it is His plan not ours and regardless we have to put our faith in God and trust in Him. Through it all their faith has been so unwavering even in the worst of times. They are truly such an example for all of us.”

Destinee recalls being impressed with Dr. Nicole Shaw’s quick diagnosis of her grandfather’s illness. “She is a wonderful diagnostician, this type of cancer is hard to find, yet she found what eight other doctors couldn’t put their finger on, even though they all agreed that there was something wrong.”

Destinee says that her granddad has always showed great faith, and this experience was no exception.  

The Promise of Home

When the day finally arrived for George to be dismissed, following days of testing and re-testing, he got to ring the famous MD Anderson Survivor’s Bell and put a note with “Faith Over Fear” and Psalm 118:17, and his type cancer on the Survivor’s Tree. He was ecstatic that he would be home in just a few days.

He is now on what is referred to as the Kite program, a ZUMA-12 study. He keeps a card in his wallet at all times in case of an emergency. On the card is the doctor’s name and number who designed this study. It will inform other health care givers of the complexities of his CAR T-Cell treatments. Any doctors who treat him can refer to this study immediately.  

Linda wants readers to know that MD Anderson does not turn anyone away, regardless of ability to pay. People like George who qualify for the clinical trial are eligible for reimbursement for some of their expenses.  

The plane trip was tiring but George managed to walk off the plane under his own steam. He and Linda got to the Huntsville airport at around 11:00 on Saturday, July 13, six months after leaving for what they thought was a week’s stay.

Tired, but elated to be back in ‘Bama, the Terry’s gathered their luggage and started out of the airport. Linda noticed several American flags held by some men standing in a double row near one of the exits. “Something must be about to happen here,” she thought, curious about the military group. As they got nearer to them, one of the men said, ‘Welcome home, George!” and the group of men of various ages, all saluted the Terry’s, who were shocked and overwhelmed at the display of a reminder of George’s service to the country in the Viet Nam war era.

George was part of a KC-135 crew that flew refueling missions for the B-52 the fighter planes in the air over the jungles of Viet Nam. His missions were sometimes so secret that he still hasn’t talked about them much after all this time.

Ret. Col. Fred Gillespie was on hand on this happy occasion to greet George. Gillespie was instrumental in arranging for the Freedom Riders and the Sons of Liberty, motorcycle groups who provide escort service for military homecomings, funerals, and medical transportations to those veterans who are honorably discharged and in need of their services. It was Gillespie who made contact with the group, and it was 2nd Class Petty Officer William Tennyson who was on hand that day to help coordinate the mission, which entailed escorting the Terry’s from the airport to their home in rural Lawrence County.

“I want to thank them for every mile of the run in representation and showing respect to those who signed a blank check offering their all to the good old USA and to the families of those who gave it all,” said Gillespie, “Every time you see a veteran you should say, ‘Thank you for your service!’ ”

According to Tennyson there were approximately 18 cyclists on hand that day, “You’ve fought two battles,” Tennyson told George, shaking his hand, “And this one you’ve won.”

Riders came from all over North Alabama to participate in this joyous occasion. Many of their missions are much more solemn. Tennyson related the story of their beginning. “The various groups around the country were formed following the Gulf War,” he explained. “There was a group of protestors who would often crash military funerals, so a group of veterans got together and formed a line between the families and the protestors. It was very effective. “

Tennyson invites anyone who would like to join the group to contact their website, “You don’t have to have a motorcycle,” he stressed. “You can form part of the flag line, or many other things. All it requires is that you love your country, you don’t have to be a veteran to do that,” he said. “Anyone who is honorably discharged from any branch of the military is eligible for this service, all they have to do is call ahead in enough time to schedule a date because we are always going somewhere and the number of people who participate depends on how many events we are covering that day.”

The group who assisted the Freedom Riders in George’s escort are called the Sons of Liberty. In addition to providing escort services for military personnel, they also do other work concerning veteran’s rights. “We work hand-in-hand with a Constitutional watchdog group that, in part, attends county commission meetings to represent veterans,” Tennyson explained.                          

The group had good weather for the trip to Lawrence County until one of those frequent Alabama pop-up showers came up to dampen the day if not the spirits of the riders and the family, following in Shawn’s truck, still amazed at the sight of  the cyclists who gave up their Saturday afternoon to help welcome this stranger home.

“We are all brothers,” said Tennyson proudly.

When the entourage reached East Lawrence they were in for another surprise. Gillespie had also arranged for Lawrence County Sheriff Max Sanders, also a veteran and member of the LC American Legion Post 25, and Moulton Police Chief, Lyndon McWhorter, to be waiting with lights flashing, to join in with the group. It was McWhorter’s day off but he’d heard about the procession and wanted to take part in it. “I’m not a veteran,” he said, “But because of them I get to do what I do.”

As they made their way down Gordon Terry Parkway another phenomenon that is an exclusively Southern tradition began to take place. Motorists pulled over on the shoulder of the highway. Those who knew what the group was doing placed their hands together in recognition of a fellow veteran, those who were not in on the surprise simply pulled over out of respect. Many exited their vehicles and standing at attention, saluted the group as they passed by.

Somehow, word of the event had reached the Moulton and Wren communities. All along the route people came outside to stand and wave or salute as the long motorcade passed by. “It was incredible,” said Shawn.

The best was yet to come… 

As the Terry’s got closer to their home, following about half of the cyclists, the remaining ones bringing up the rear, they noticed a lot of cars parked on the roadside. More people were standing outside their homes, waving signs and shouting, “Welcome Home!”

Their driveway was lined in American flags waving gently in a soft summer breeze. Home had never looked so good!

A crowd of well-wishers from the Wren Community, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, neighbors and family were gathered in front of their house. George’s sister, Carlene, was responsible for this part of the occasion. She and George’s other sister, Carolyn Blake, had arranged the welcome home group and had a banner made for the occasion. They had also prepared George’s favorite foods, and laid out their offerings, along with many dishes from Pleasant Grove members, for the couple to enjoy. 

They were devastated when they first got the news, their mother passed away of cancer and so had Carlene’s husband, but seeing their brother standing on the porch, thinner than when he left but alive and cancer free, it was a miracle. But then again, they’d always known that their brother was a survivor.

An overcome George and Linda, along with their sons and grandchildren, greeted their guests and amid many tears and much laughter, they stood hand in hand on their porch looking out at the sea of familiar faces who had come to give their love and support for the man who was such a good friend, neighbor, brother and fellow church member.

Linda hales from Arkansas, but she has lived in Lawrence County for over 50 years. George, however, grew up less than a mile from where they were standing. He is well respected and loved in the community.

After making a short speech through the mask he is required for his protection against germs, the Terry’s offered their thanks and appreciation for the people who escorted them home as well as the ones who had waited patiently for them to arrive. It was an emotional conclusion to a happy day for all of them.

Because his immune system is so low, George must not be in crowds until the doctors advise him that he is no longer susceptible to germs. The Terry’s also must limit the number of visitors who come to pay their respects and welcome him home. After his doctor’s release him, the Terry’s are looking forward to rejoining their neighbors, family and friends, in a real victory celebration. “Thanks to all of you for understanding how critical it is for  George to be cautious about coming into contact with anyone who has even a slight cold, it could set him back because he has no immune system at this point,” stressed Linda.

George will return periodically to MD Anderson for more testing, as well as having others run at local hospitals and doctors’ offices. MD Anderson will be provided with all of the information and keep tabs on his progress via the internet.

When asked if she thinks that this treatment using George’s own blood cells worked a miracle in their lives, Linda’s emphatic, “Yes,” could be heard for almost a country mile. “I do think we are seeing the beginning of a cure. This CAR-T Cell therapy only works on George’s type of cancer, but they have many more cell programs that people can qualify for, for other types of cancer. Lots of them,” she added.

The entire Terry family wishes to take this opportunity to thank everyone who sent a card or letter, a gift or made a phone call, paid them a visit in Houston, or prayed for George’s recovery. They also wish to thank and acknowledge Col. Fred Gillespie, the Freedom Riders and the Sons of Liberty for their surprise welcome home escort, the county and city law enforcement officers who participated, most of them   veteran’s, and all of the people who prayed for George from many states and foreign countries.

Interested in CAR T-Cell Therapy?

To learn more about our CAR T-cell therapies, including how to become a patient, please call MD Anderson, 833-368-6382

To learn more about enlisting the services of the Freedom Riders or the Son’s of Liberty Riders, please visit their websites of the same name

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