She doesn't strike you as your typical hero. Eighty-three years old. Lives in a Springfield mobile home park in a house with no medals on the wall, no newspaper clippings in a binder, no calendars with speaking events for groups eager to hear her story.
But in the war on cancer, Norma Jolly is, indeed, a quiet hero.
She willingly let herself be a guinea pig for a new type of anti-cancer drug that proved amazingly effective for her.
"She was among the first in the world to get this therapy for her type of cancer," says Dr. Benjamin Cho, Jolly's oncologist at Eugene's Willamette Valley Cancer Institute and Research Center.
And had she not green-lighted the use of the experimental drug on her?
The search for answers wouldn't be as far along. And she probably would be dead.
"No, she wouldn't be alive at this point," says Cho, 39. "She had a few weeks or a month to live."
The choice wasn't hard, says Jolly, a retired elementary school teacher.
"This or hospice? Which would you choose?" she asks. "I just thought if I can help anyone else I'd go ahead and do it."
In 2008, Jolly was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, a typically slow-growing form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells.
She was, says Cho, unable to tolerate more traditional forms of cancer therapy because of other health problems.
In 2010, Jolly was given treatment that helped for a while. But by last spring her cancer had turned from slow-growing to aggressive, which, says Cho, usually proves fatal. The cancer had built up particularly thick in her abdomen.
He could only offer two choices: hospice — keeping her as comfortable as possible until she died — or enrolling her in a research trial for a drug that has yet to be approved by the Federal Drug Administration for her type of cancer.
It's called brentuximab vedotin, developed by Seattle Genetics, which touts itself as "the industry leader in antibody-drug conjugates, a technology designed to harness the targeting ability of monoclonal antibodies to deliver cell-killing agents directly to cancer cells."
Smart bombs, if you will.
"These 'smart bombs' are the way things are going," says Cho. "In traditional chemotherapy treatment for decades, (the drug) preferentially hits cancer cells but also hits your hair, gets in your gut, your immune system...."
With smart bomb technology, he says, "companies are learning to bring the chemotherapy directly to the cancer cell and so you don't get all the collateral damage. You get the best of both worlds: the benefit of the treatment without a lot of side effects."
Jolly was fortunate to even have a choice. The Willamette Valley institute happened to be leading this particular clinical trial; the center has been part of studies that have led to 43 FDA-approved cancer therapies.
This particular drug had never been tried on a patient with relapsed follicular lymphoma, but after Cho ran some tests on Jolly, he concluded the drug might work on her.
"Dr. Cho is real good," says Jolly. "He didn't say 'you gotta have this.' It was my choice."
She began treatment last June. She felt tired for three or four days after each treatment and lost a little hair, but experienced no other side effects.
Meanwhile, over the first five months of treatment — and six doses — Jolly's cancer responded dramatically.
A PET scan (positron emission tomography) showed her cancer virtually gone. The scan highlights sugar — "cancer uses lots of sugar," says Cho — and the "after" image showed high substances of sugar only in her brain and bladder, which are high-sugar areas. The other high-sugar areas from the "before" had disappeared.
"I'm a believer," says Jolly. "Look at those pictures. What can you say?"
Not that she hasn't ruled out other factors in her turnaround. "I pray a lot, too."
Cho, frankly, didn't expect the results to be so spectacular. "But that's why we do these trials," he says.
So impressive was Jolly's response to the treatment that her case was highlighted last month at the American Society of Hematology conference in Atlanta.
With this single success, says Cho, larger trials will now be offered with hopes that the drug, which has already been FDA-approved for some forms of cancer, will be approved for follicular lymphoma.
"I hope this can help someone else," says Jolly.
Does she consider herself a hero?
"People keep telling me that — at the center I'm known as the one who's doing so well — but I'm no hero and never wanted to be."
Just living, breathing proof that others may soon find similar success.
Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com