Gary Lambert was just treated at Moffitt with CAR T-cell immunotherapy for multiple myeloma, thanks to improved availability of this breakthrough treatment.
In the summer of 2014, Gary was a healthy, active 37-year-old husband, father, and law enforcement officer in Philadelphia, when hip and back pain sidelined him. He suffered through months of rapidly worsening pain until a bone marrow biopsy revealed stage III multiple myeloma, accounting for over 80% of the cells. The bones in his 6’3” frame were decimated, the myeloma leaving holes and fractures throughout his spine and hip.
While other families prepared for the holidays that year, Gary spent late December on the first of many lines of treatment. Due to his age and the advanced stage of his disease, the treatment was aggressive. Gary kept a smile on his face for the benefit of his young children, then just six and seven, but inside he was struggling. He found refuge in the online communities of myeloma patients on social media. As the treatments brought relief from the pain that had upended his life, those communities brought perspective and a sense of comradery that propelled him forward.
Shortly before the one-year anniversary of his diagnosis, Gary underwent an autologous stem cell transplant that decimated most of the cancer cells, leading to nearly two years progression-free.
Making a Move
As is the case with many myeloma patients, the disease made a reappearance, necessitating a number of medication changes to stay ahead of its mutations. CAR T was mentioned as an investigational possibility, but the heart damage caused by prior treatments left him off of clinical trial shortlists. While his oncology team discussed next steps, Gary was making plans of his own. His wife, Nadia, had long encouraged relocating to Florida to be closer to their families. The idea of a fresh start, away from the hectic city life was appealing. Tampa Bay was ranked high on their list, not just because of the nice weather, but also because he could get his care at Moffitt. They researched providers and Gary was especially pleased to find Dr. Brandon Blue at Moffitt, one of only a few African-American blood cancer specialists. Moffitt is also one of only a few U.S. cancer centers certified to offer CAR T therapy to patients. A tour of the facility sealed the deal and in 2020, Nadia and Gary along with their children and dog drove for the better part of a day from Philadelphia to their new home in Riverview, just south of Tampa.
“I had my first appointment at Moffitt shortly after relocating to Florida, and immediately knew Dr. Blue was the best person to oversee my treatment,” says Gary. After evaluating his heart and finding it recovered, he was placed on the CAR T waiting list.
It was an unremarkable day in August when Gary got a call from the office of Dr. Doris Hansen, a lead physician on the CAR T team. She shared Gary would be able to receive the CAR T in November.
A Personalized Process
Each potentially lifesaving CAR T therapy dose is custom-tailored for the individual patient. Program Chair, Dr. Fred Locke, explains how CAR T uses a patient’s own immune system: "We take immune system cells, called T cells, from the blood of the patient. We work with a facility where the cells are re-engineered. A custom CAR gene is put in those T cells. The cells are then infused back into the cancer patient."
Patients like Gary's personalized and genetically modified CAR T cells go on to 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. This kind of encouraging care is important. I have such gratitude for my caregivers and family, especially, Nadia. She has been my everything. I would not be here without her support.”
Despite many prior challenges, Gary has remained optimistic. In his words, he doesn’t get hung up on "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 also advocates for not letting cancer define who you are. As he shares, "I am a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend, a business owner, and a coffee snob. And I happen to have multiple myeloma."
Gary says cancer has changed his priorities as well. “I always loved coffee and dreamt of having my own business for years. 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.”
He started the company a year before the move to Florida and relaunched it from his new Florida facility. Earlier this year, he produced a bronze medal winning coffee in the annual Golden Bean North America roasting competition. Gary says Bright Land Coffee has given him a piece of his life back, after having to leave law enforcement due to the extent of his myeloma. That, along with sharing his story, has transformed what could have been a tragedy, into opportunity.
“I share my story because hearing others has meant so much to me. 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."
His Perfect Order
Now, Gary has become one of only about 100 patients to be treated with the first CAR T therapy approved for multiple myeloma thus far at Moffitt.
“I am grateful to have access to the latest treatment advances and high-quality care at Moffitt and benefit from therapeutic advances like CAR T which weren't an option when I was first diagnosed, not even that long ago. I just want my kids to know their dad is going to be there for them.”
So how does a custom coffee roasting expert view this highly personalized CAR T concoction?
"It is almost like an artisanal product, isn't it? I think of the CAR T as akin to a specially crafted, small-batch beverage or cheese or bread one might order. That was my take as someone who loves brewing, bottling, and enjoys baking bread."
While Gary's cancer journey continues, he prefers to focus on the future of his family, and his company through developing new and exciting products, and expanding their clientele and coffee farming partners. Thanks to his team at Moffitt, innovations like CAR T, and his own perseverance, life may still have a few surprises brewing.
Connect to a Blood Cancer Expert
Moffitt Cancer Center has the largest multiple myeloma program in Florida and is world-renowned for its expertise in tackling this hematologic malignancy. Multiple myeloma remains incurable for roughly 85% of patients, making the challenge of finding new treatments and curative strategies all the more urgent. Moffitt is at the forefront of these discoveries through ongoing research efforts and the provision of cutting-edge therapies to patients in need, such as commercially approved CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) T-cell therapy. To request an appointment call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online.