By Kim Polacek, APR, CPRC - November 19, 2020
Sheri Pummill is no stranger to fighting for a cause. She spent 28 years as a prosecutor and victim advocate in Michigan. But last February, she had to put her legal career aside to take on a new fight: cancer.
In March 2017, Pummill was having trouble breathing. She thought it was an upper respiratory infection and was prescribed antibiotics. When her condition didn’t improve, she was sent for an X-ray to rule out pneumonia. Instead, doctors found something suspicious that required further imaging.
“I remember the look on the doctor’s face and telling him that he was scaring me,” said Pummill. “He told me he thought I had cancer and needed to get a CT scan.”
The CT scan confirmed Pummill had stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. She was hospitalized for two days while doctors drained the fluid around her lungs. She started treatment, an oral chemotherapy, two weeks later.
“Chemotherapy almost killed me. I had some adverse reaction that led to me being in the hospital for 10 days. It was awful,” she recalled.
Doctors prescribed a different oral chemotherapy, but after months with no response she was told the only option she had left was a standard chemotherapy regimen. Pummill wasn’t too thrilled about the thought of chemotherapy infusions and neither was her daughter, who works at a cancer treatment facility in Fort Myers, Florida.
“My daughter interned at Moffitt Cancer Center and she knew that was where I needed to be. So, we gathered all my medical records and she made the call,” said Pummill. “The next month, January 2019, I was in Tampa meeting Dr. Ben Creelan.”
Creelan enrolled Pummill in an early phase clinical trial using a type of immunotherapy called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, or TIL. It uses a patient’s own live immune cells to fight cancer, and after having success in melanoma, it is being evaluated for lung cancer. Surgeons remove a patient’s tumor and the T cells inside are dissected and cultured in the lab. These cells, which can detect and invade the tumor, are then multiplied by the billions in a process that takes at least one month. Once infused back into the patient, the army of T cells can seek and kill the cancer cells.
Two weeks after first meeting Creelan, Pummill was in surgery to remove her lung tumors.
"I remember feeling very intimidated when I first met Dr. Creelan because you could see how brilliant he was, but we really became friends,” said Pummill. “He had my back. He is the one who convinced me to retire so I could focus all my energy on beating this.”
While her TIL therapy was being prepared, Pummill was given injections of the immune checkpoint inhibitor nivolumab to get her body ready for infusion. In March 2019, she received TIL therapy.
“The only way I can describe it is an out of body experience. It’s like you die and are reborn,” said Pummill. “I could hear people coming in and out of the room. I could feel the infusion going through my body from my toes to my nose. Then for a while I was out of it. I had trouble remembering my name and other things, but after a few weeks everything was normal.”
Within a month, scans showed Pummill’s lung masses had shrunk by 38%. And nine months later, she was classified as having a complete response, meaning she had no detectable cancer following treatment.
It has been more than a year since Pummill’s TIL infusion, and she has had no new lesions or masses. “I’m so thankful for Moffitt and Dr. Creelan,” she said. “I'm looking forward to having goals again. I am ready. I want to visit towns, fly in planes, drive cars, see things and not have to wake up by an alarm. I want to spend time with my grandbabies and live life without restrictions.”