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Moving Forward After Lymphoma

Clayton Harris and Sonali Smith, MDClayton Harris and Sonali Smith, MD

For nearly a year, Clayton Harris III was told that a painful lump on his neck was just an infection. But when it got larger -- almost as big as a golf ball -- and more painful, Harris sought a second opinion at the University of Chicago Medicine. A needle biopsy confirmed what Harris had suspected: the lump was cancerous. Follow-up tests showed it was follicular lymphoma, a type of B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma that is typically indolent (slow-growing). The cancer had spread throughout his lymph nodes.

Elizabeth Blair, MD Elizabeth Blair, MD

Head and neck surgeon Elizabeth Blair, MD, removed the neck tumor and connected Harris with her colleague, Sonali Smith, MD, director of the UChicago Medicine Lymphoma Program.

"We tend to see this type of lymphoma in people in their 60s," Smith said. "When I first met Clayton, he was just 42, his wife was pregnant with their first child and he had stage 3 disease."

Sonali Smith, MD Sonali Smith, MD

Smith suggested Harris enroll in a clinical trial of a monoclonal antibody designed to hit a target found on B-cells, white blood cells that make antibodies. The medication, Smith said, is highly targeted and, although some patients can have an allergic reaction, has fewer side effects compared to chemotherapy.

Harris did well during the trial. The drug induced a partial response, which meant stable disease for the next 18 months. But then the cancer became more aggressive. Smith recommended he undergo a more intensive treatment of chemotherapy.

Harris had to cope with difficult side effects – nausea, headaches and sore joints. But the hardest part, he recalled, was losing playtime with his little boys. "They needed their dad to get better, fast," he said.

The cancer went into remission after four of the six planned doses of chemotherapy. Harris completed treatment in 2015 and regained his strength and health. While the remission can last for years, the disease is considered a lifelong condition. So Smith will continue to follow Harris on a regular basis to check for signs of recurrence.

The cancer went into remission after four of the six planned doses of chemotherapy. Harris completed treatment in 2015 and regained his strength and health. While the remission can last for years, the disease is considered a lifelong condition. So Smith will continue to follow Harris on a regular basis to check for signs of recurrence. The Harris family

For his part, Harris is now focusing on work and family life. A lawyer who previously worked in the offices of an Illinois governor and a Chicago mayor, he recently took the position of executive director for the Illinois International Port District. He and his wife, Trena, stay busy keeping up with 4-year-old Clayton IV and 2-year old Anderson Jackson (AJ).

"I try to keep life moving forward; I keep my faith," Harris said. "I'll worry about other things when I need to, but right now, I choose to be happy. Life is good."