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A clinical trial helps woman go from cancer patient to cancer survivor

Cancer Patient Survivor Lonon celebrating her victory over cancer with Blaze at UAB's basketball game on Dec. 4
Lonon celebrated her victory over cancer with Blaze at UAB’s basketball game on Dec. 4.

In 2014, Edith Surles Lonon of Montgomery, Alabama, noticed swollen lymph nodes along her neck. She was recovering from shoulder replacement surgery, following doctor’s orders for physical therapy. Little did she know she had a far more serious journey ahead.

Her physician diagnosed her with stage 3 T-cell lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer that begins in the cells of the lymph system, and referred her to oncologist Scott A. McDaniel, M.D., of the Montgomery Cancer Center. Lonon traded her physical therapy for chemotherapy and leaned into this unexpected detour. The retired schoolteacher — known for her high standards, carefully tended yard, and somewhat daring do-it-yourself projects involving a roof, a rake, a ladder, and a mountain of leaves, limbs and pine straw — was ready for the challenge. Sure, she might need to forgo climbing onto the roof to clean out her gutters, but she would apply her tenacious spirit to tackling her cancer instead.

Unfortunately, her rare form of cancer was undeterred. After two years of chemotherapy, she relapsed.  

McDaniel referred her to his colleague at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Amitkumar Mehta, M.D., director of the lymphoma program and medical director of the O’Neal Cancer Center’s Clinical Trials Office. Mehta performed advanced genetic analysis of her lymphoma and determined that Lonon was eligible for a novel treatment being evaluated in a Phase I clinical trial.

Road trips

At 76 years old, Lonon began weekly trips from Montgomery to Birmingham and back again to receive infusions of the drug made just for her using precision medicine. Friends and family escorted her on the many road trips, and doctors Mehta and McDaniel conferred with each other routinely on her care.

The innovative treatment that Lonon received is a first-in-class drug that reactivates a tumor suppressor protein p53 by targeting its inhibitors in the cancer cells. Because genetic tests revealed that her T-cell lymphoma cancer cells had a normal and functional p53 protein (not mutated or wild type p53), Mehta suspected that these cells would be susceptible to the therapeutic effects of the drug.

It worked.  

“Within one and a half years, she went into complete remission. And she continues to be in complete remission,” Mehta said. “Typically, one out of four or five patients would be alive after five years with her diagnosis. She had an amazing response with this therapy.”

“I’m just grateful that Dr. McDaniel recommended me for this program and that Dr. Mehta and his team took me on,” said Lonon, now 82, who noted that even though she felt terrible after her treatments, she persevered each time until she began to feel better and better. 

Now that her cancer is in remission, she is back to her old routines, although admittedly shelving the more daring ones, such as climbing up on her roof. “I feel fine today. I went out today and raked my leaves. That’s my exercise.”

UAB presented Lonon and her family and friends with a game ball from the UAB Blazers contest against South Alabama.
UAB presented Lonon and her family and friends with a game ball from the UAB Blazers contest against South Alabama.

A Blazer tribute

The Montgomery native was game to travel to Birmingham once again recently to be celebrated as a survivor. On Dec. 4, the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center and the UAB Blazers honored Lonon by presenting her with an autographed game ball at the UAB Blazers vs. South Alabama Jaguars game at Bartow Arena. Lonon received a standing ovation from the crowd.

“Mrs. Lonon is a fighter. She continued with her daily life,” said Mehta, who acknowledged that part of her success was due to her attitude and circle of support. “She has her sister, who is always with her. This is very important. Attitude and support are both key for a successful outcome.”

“My sister, my daughter and a friend of mine — they were so good to me,” Lonon said. “They worked together, and I can never thank them enough. I’m grateful.”

“We all prayed for her recovery, and God was faithful to send his earthly angels, Dr. McDaniel and Dr. Mehta,” said her daughter, Sonya Lonon Armstrong, on behalf of the circle of support that included Lonon’s sister, Brenda Surles, her friend Thrasher Jones, and the relatives from Montgomery, Atlanta and Nashville who stood by her side during the game ball presentation.

The invitation to be honored at UAB’s Bartow Arena closed the loop on a long journey with a happy occasion, an opportunity to celebrate the success of a precision medicine treatment that gave Lonon more days ahead with her family and friends — and more days to tackle those ever-present yard projects.  

“I know for a fact that I would not be alive today if I hadn’t been steered to Birmingham.”

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