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'A vaccine helped cure my cancer'

By Denise Villani for CNN

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Denise Villani: "I live my life to the fullest everyday."

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(CNN) -- Denise Villani was told she had a cancer that could not be cured, but three and a half years on, after taking part in a clinical trial for a vaccine, she is cancer-free. This is her story:

More than three and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the plasma cells. I was 47 at the time.

Plasma cells usually make up less than five percent of cells in the body's bone marrow, but if you have multiple myeloma, a group of abnormal plasma cells (myeloma cells) multiply, raising the percentage of plasma cells to more than 10 percent of the cells in your bone marrow. The result can be erosion of the bones. The disease also interferes with the function of your bone marrow and immune system, which can lead to anemia and infection, and can cause problems with kidneys.

The standard treatment is three months of chemotherapy, followed by a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. The average life expectancy after this treatment is two to five years. I had no noticeable symptoms, apart from anemia, and although the cancer had not yet affected my bones, it was a devastating scenario. I was a single mom with two sons, aged 16 and 18.

My doctors were in touch with doctors at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore and presented me with the option of participating in a clinical trial where they would take my cancer cells and develop a vaccine. I would still receive the standard treatment, followed by the vaccine. The doctors hoped the vaccine would create an immune response within my body to resist returning myeloma cells.

I returned to hospital the week after my diagnosis, and received a four days of chemotherapy, around the clock. I did this once a month, for three months.

The aim of the chemo treatments was to lower the cancer cell count to make my body more receptive to a successful bone marrow transplant. After the third month, my body had developed a "rejection clone," which resisted the chemo. I was put on Thalidomide, an oral type of chemo that my body responded well to, and which is commonly used for chemo-resistant patients with myeloma. During these months of treatment, I was extremely fatigued. This was caused by the steroids that are often given in conjunction with certain chemo drugs. And yes, my hair fell out.

During these months, I was also visiting Johns Hopkins Hospital on a regular basis. There I had all types of tests, including bone marrow biopsies, and it was recommended I have a stem cell transplant versus a bone marrow transplant.

The death rate is quite high with a bone marrow transplant because of the risk of rejection disease, called graft versus host disease or GVH. Prior to the transplant, they took my blood and isolated, cleaned and froze the stem cells.

The week before the transplant I was given high doses of chemotherapy and whole body radiation to kill as many remaining cancer cells as possible. The transplant, similar to a transfusion, was successful and I was on the road to recovery.

I developed a pretty mean rash that was diagnosed as GVH, which should not have happened because the stem cells I'd received were my own. The doctors weren't sure how this happened, but one thought was that the vaccine (one dose was administered before stem cell collection, and pre-transplant) may have caused this when given the stem cells during transplantation.

Regardless, my doctors felt this may be the cure for me on its own, because the only enemy left to reject in my body were returning myeloma cells. The rash cleared up and after three weeks in the hospital, I was sent home to recover.

The vaccine clinical trial continued with one round of vaccines given every three weeks for eight rounds. My body continued to show signs of recovery and immune response. Any remaining cells were dwindling. By July 2003, it was written in my record, "no evidence of disease." I could only thank God and the wonderful doctors and nurses.

I have been cancer-free for more than two years. There is no evidence in my body of this "incurable" disease. I continue to live my life to the fullest every day, as I have been able to get my sons in college and continue to work full time. There are wonderful researchers doing amazing things in the field of cancer. Hopefully within a few years these procedures will be approved for standard treatment. Never give up hope.

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