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Former St. Bona president hails Roswell stem cell therapy program

If it weren't for the stem cell therapy offered at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Sister Margaret Carney wouldn't have been where she was Saturday.

The former president of St. Bonaventure University joined more than 200 other former patients and their family members for Roswell's second annual transplant and cellular therapy patient reunion. They enjoyed a picnic in the Kaminski Park and Gardens, in front of the cancer center.

The Franciscan nun, now 78, had just announced her plan to retire as university president in 2016 when, three weeks later, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer.

The treatment was built around a stem cell transplant in which Sister Margaret's own stem cells were extracted, treated and re-injected to fight the cancer cells.

"Definitely, it was a life-threatening cancer, but they've done amazing work to intervene with drugs and often with stem cell transplants, and they're constantly finding new therapies and new formulas for this," Sister Margaret said. "Roswell has one of the top teams in the nation for dealing with these types of cancers and applying newer therapies."

Roswell treats about 160 patients per year with stem cell therapies and another 30 with other types of cellular therapy, said Dr. Philip McCarthy, director of Roswell's transplant and cellular therapy center.

Sister Margaret still undergoes maintenance chemotherapy treatments every two months, but the "most intense" part of her therapy lasted about 18 months, including 2 1/2 weeks as an inpatient.

She was diagnosed with myeloma after she suffered a fractured lumbar vertebra, which came as a surprise because she hadn't fallen or been in an accident.

It turns out that unexplained fractures can be a symptom of the disease, along with fatigue. Sister Margaret said she had been tired, but blamed it on the pressure of her job. She kept working at Bona for six months while she was undergoing weekly treatments at Roswell.

McCarthy said Roswell uses other types of cellular therapy on leukemia and lymphoma patients, involving removal, treatment and re-injection of a patient's cells. Since 2017, the facility has been testing cellular therapy on solid tumors, too.

"There are parts of this country where these treatments might not be available and people would be denied an opportunity for a second chance, such as I've been given," Sister Margaret said.

Shirley Johnson, chief clinical operations officer, said the increase in the types of therapy available at Roswell has led to capacity problems.

She said Roswell is converting office space on the eighth floor to increase the size of its outpatient clinics, which sometimes treat 1,000 patients per day.

"I come into the clinic some days and I think, 'There must be a sale,' " Sister Margaret said.

Saturday's party was emotional for some survivors.

"We had a woman come up who was crying and she said, 'You have no idea what today means to me,' " said Natasha Allard, Roswell's marketing manager. She and colleague Mary Kate O'Connor organized the picnic.

"One of our best friends and co-workers is in the transplant process now," Allard said. "I'm going to go up and tell him, 'I just saw 200 people who are where you're going to be eventually.' "

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