By Steve Blanchard - December 19, 2022
Former law enforcement officer and Tampa Bay business owner Gary Lambert is part of a very exclusive club. He is just one of about 100 patients at Moffitt Cancer Center to undergo CAR T therapy to treat multiple myeloma.
It’s a club he anxiously waited to join for several years while he underwent a more general form of treatment.
“I was on a waiting list for CAR T,” Lambert said. “The goal was always to get into CAR T, which we thought would provide a better long term response. Fortunately, I got the call in August, and we could begin.”
CAR T (Chimeric antigen receptor therapy) has been used to treat other forms of blood cancers but was only recently approved for multiple myeloma. The therapy reengineers a patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer.
For this treatment, the patient’s T cells are removed and modified with additional receptors to help identify, attack and ultimately destroy the cancer cells. The reengineered T cells are then infused back into the patient’s body in a single treatment, enabling the body’s immune system to better combat the disease.
While grateful for the treatment, Lambert said the journey has been difficult. Fatigue has been a major issue, but he has remained optimistic. It helped, he said, that he and his wife were familiar with CAR T and had certain expectations.
“This has been an ongoing conversation since January of 2022,” Lambert said.
A Long Journey to CAR T
It was shortly after the 2021 holidays that Lambert visited his doctor and concerns arose over his bloodwork. When a biopsy discovered that the myeloma had impacted his bones, the conversation shifted to options and lines of treatment.
“I knew the traditional treatment wasn’t long term and was more for bridging the gap until I could get CAR T,” he said. “My wife and I both researched it years before it was FDA approved, so we were excited that I would finally be able to receive it.”
In 2014, Lambert was a healthy and active 37-year-old husband, father and law enforcement officer in Philadelphia when hip and back pain sidelined him. Unable to find the cause, he suffered through months of debilitating pain before a bone marrow biopsy showed he had stage 3 multiple myeloma. Lambert started the first of what would end up being many forms of treatment, including a stem cell transplant.
It was when the disease returned in early 2022 that Lambert moved his family to Tampa to be closer to Moffitt. Today, he is a patient of Dr. Brandon Blue and Dr. Doris Hansen.
“I had my first appointment at Moffitt shortly after relocating to Florida and immediately knew Dr. Blue was the person to oversee my treatment,” Lambert said.
A Personalized Process
Lambert’s personalized and genetically modified CAR T cells target and kill malignant cells that have a specific antigen on the surface. The cells circulate through the body and seek out the cancer and destroy it.
“Everyone from the Moffitt team has treated me with compassion,” Lambert said. “This kind of encouraging care is important. I have such gratitude for my caregivers and family, especially my wife, Nadia. She has been my everything. I would not be here without her support.”
Lambert admits that the journey has been challenging, but having the right attitude and support system can make a world of difference, he said.
“Why me and why cancer ... You won’t find a good answer, and if you are focused on the past, you can’t live in the present,” he said.
He also advocates for not letting cancer define who you are, and his own diagnosis has helped change his priorities.
“I always loved coffee and dreamt of having my own business for years,” he said. “Cancer’s silver lining is it has allowed me to focus on launching Bright Land Coffee. When I’m not here at Moffitt, I am hand-roasting coffee and making cold brew.”
Clinical trials and ongoing research continue to change what it means to be treated for cancer, and Lambert hopes his story inspires other patients to stay positive and become their own advocate for treatment.
“I share my story because hearing others have meant so much to me,” he said. “I had to accept that cancer has taken away a lot, and I have had to have many difficult conversations with my children. I know that my life and my story can impact other cancer patients and people of color facing a health crisis."