Teen overcomes blood cancer, thanks to CAR T-cell therapy

Cedric Elery

Pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or pediatric ALL, is the most common childhood cancer. But being common doesn’t necessarily make the blood cancer easy to conquer — which 15-year-old Cedric Elery learned firsthand over several tough years.

“I was in school in the gym room and started to get tired and pass out,” said Cedric, a native of Chicago’s West Side. “It made me feel shocked because I never got sick before. And I didn’t know what was going on, because it kept happening over and over again. I was scared.”

Cedric’s mom, Tomika Nelson, noticed his fatigue as well and decided to take him to a hospital. When no one who examined him could find a cause of his health issues, they tried another hospital. Physicians there soon identified his disease and referred him to Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago Medicine.

Cedric was told he had to start chemotherapy.

“I was going to the doctor at least three times a week for chemo,” Cedric said. “I was scared about it because they told me all the episodes that can happen from the chemo, how I could lose my hair, lose weight.”

The family was hopeful the chemotherapy would be the cure, but Cedric’s disease relapsed. He then received an allogeneic stem cell transplant, which involves a matching donor’s cells being transplanted into his bone marrow, with the goal of restoring his immune system.

Cedric would be in the hospital for more than four months, eventually having a nurse by his side around the clock to help monitor the mental and emotional challenges he faced as a result of dealing with his illness and the side effects of treatment.

“We had to keep praying to get through it,” his mom said.

The family rallied around the teen, providing the kind of support that cancer experts say is crucial to a patient’s ability to successfully fight cancer.

“A lot of my family members took turns coming every day,” Cedric said. “My grandma, my sisters, uncles … everyone took turns coming and did whatever I needed.”

For a while, it looked as though the stem cell transplant was successful.

But the cancer persisted, and Cedric began to lose hope. He had lost weight, lost his hair, and missed out on school and social activities for months on end, cooped up in a hospital bed.

“He had a really aggressive disease,” said Michele Nassin, MD, one of Cedric’s doctors who specializes in pediatric blood cancers and stem cell transplantation. “So, he came back to us, and we gave him a new type of therapy called CAR T-cell therapy, which is a way that we take the patient’s own T-cells and rev them up so they can fight cancer.”

I was scared, but I had family there by my side the whole time, so I had nothing to worry about. Cancer can’t compete with CAR T-cell therapy.

Little did Cedric know at the time that he soon would be linked to a lot of “firsts.”

Cedric benefited from UChicago Medicine being one of the first sites certified to offer CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) T-cell therapy for pediatric ALL cases after the FDA approved the treatment in 2017. In fact, the academic health system was the first in the country to offer the groundbreaking therapy for both adult and pediatric patients.

Cedric also became Comer Children’s first pediatric patient to receive CAR T-cell therapy — which reprograms a patient’s own disease-fighting white blood cells (T cells) to seek out, recognize and attack cancer cells without harming healthy cells.

A team at Comer Children’s was ready to help Cedric fight his disease. That included pediatric cancer physicians Gabrielle Lapping-Carr, James LaBelle and John Cunningham, as well as nurses like Gracie Foote.

On the day of his infusion, his supercharged T-cells were brought in a small packet and hooked up to his IV.

For an added stroke of luck, Nassin and Cedric both wore their favorite pair of Vans shoes that day. She calls him the “modern day Imelda Marcos” for his shoe collection and penchant for fashion.

His care team worked to make Cedric smile and look forward, knowing he’d face severe side effects and that his illness might persist. They asked to see photos of his prom outfit, a sequined blue suit with matching shoes.

About one week after the infusion, Cedric felt normal. Several weeks later, his blood showed no signs of the disease. That was in the spring, and he’s been in remission ever since.

“Cedric is such a cool kid,” Nassin said. “He has such a strong spirit, and he and his mom have worked really hard to get here with all their visits and to do all of the things they needed to do to stay well and healthy. So, now seeing him on the other side of all of the tough things he went through has been really amazing.”

Since being in remission, Cedric was able to attend his school’s prom and take trips to Hawaii and Florida. He plans to take more trips and will start his sophomore year of high school in the fall.

“I was scared, but I had family there by my side the whole time, so I had nothing to worry about,” said the teen. “Cancer can’t compete with CAR T-cell therapy.”

And neither with Cedric.

Cancer Can't Compete

Cancer survivor Anthony Rizzo is teaming up with the Chicago Tribune, along with the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, Mariano’s and the University of Chicago Medicine, in a campaign to raise money for cancer research and support for families as they fight cancer together.

Cancer Can't Compete
michele nassin

Michele Nassin, MD

Michele Nassin is an expert in pediatric blood cancers and stem cell transplantation.

View Dr. Nassin's physician profile