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Immunotherapy and a big dose of positivity helped Shelley during cancer treatment

On the rebound, cancer patient Shelley Kerr finds a unique way to thank two University of Minnesota Health doctors who helped save her life.
Shelley Kerr (left), presents a handmade bronze sculpture to Urologist Badrinath Konety, MD (right). Konety and Medical Oncologist Gautam Jha, MD, helped treat Kerr for recurrent cancer in her bladder and kidney.

Like many doctors, Badrinath Konety, MD, and Gautam Jha, MD, receive their fair share of “thank you” messages from appreciative patients.

But neither of them have ever received a gift quite like the one they were given on Nov. 15 and 16, when artist and cancer patient Shelley Kerr presented both of them with a pair custom bronze sculptures she designed.

Shelley, from Colorado, said the gift seemed like a natural decision.

“They saved my life,” Shelley said. “The great skill and passion of these two doctors filled me with confidence. I was able to move through this very scary, life-threatening disease with grace. They had my back, allowing me and my husband Dave to make great decisions and participate in my treatments and recovery.”

Immunotherapy helps Shelley

In 2014 Shelley was diagnosed with urothelial carcinoma in her left kidney. Doctors removed that kidney. The cancer was also found in her bladder. In 2015, she started seeing Konety, a University of Minnesota Health urologist, and Jha, a medical oncologist. Under their care, Shelley underwent chemotherapy. Eventually, she had the cancerous bladder removed, and received a “neo-bladder” in its place. Following these treatments there was no residual disease.

Later that year, however, Shelley began experiencing symptoms. After investigating, her care team discovered that the cancer had returned. Running low on options, Jha suggested that Shelley enroll in a clinical trial for immunotherapy, an emerging therapy that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Three months after starting the new treatment, Shelley was tumor-free.

Watch a video to learn more about immunotherapy.

Shelley received a type of treatment called immune checkpoint inhibitors, Jha said.

The body has checks and balances designed to regulate normal immune responses, he explained. For example, checkpoints help govern which cells the body identifies as “self” and which cells it sees as “foreign” so the immune cells don’t attack the wrong things. Unfortunately, cancer cells often exploit the same checkpoints by disguising themselves as normal, thereby avoiding an immune response. Immune checkpoint inhibitors enable our white cells to mount an immune response to these disguised cancer cells.

The treatment is not without its risks, however. The immune system can start to reject and attack other parts of body besides cancer. In Shelley’s case, she developed joint swelling, which made movement painful.

“We had to stop [immunotherapy] and start her on steroids,” Jha said. “They suppress the immune system and reduce side effects, but can extinguish the progress we’ve made.”

Though Shelley’s immunotherapy eliminated the tumors, her cancer is making a slow comeback in her lymph nodes. For now, her cancer care team is safely keeping watch on it.

 “I am healthy now, and excited to be back to a life that includes lifting weights, dancing, playing the accordion, and making bronze art,” Shelley said.

Shelley also presented a sculpture to Medical Oncologist Gautam Jha, MD. 

The art of a positive attitude

That upbeat attitude has also been an important factor in Shelley’s journey, her doctors said.

“Mentally she’s a tough, resilient lady,” Dr. Konety said. As an example, Konety related a story from Shelley's treatment. After Shelley's bladder was removed, Shelley's sister-in-law wrote a poem describing Shelley's bladder as a "friend" who left her. "It’s funny and poignant and now we use it in a book as educational material for patients,” Konety said.

“Sure, I shook my fist at the sky,” Shelley said, ”And cried myself to sleep. But I did not stay in that place. I’m not a victim of cancer.” She laughed. “I have every right to be mad. I never smoked a cigarette, I don’t have a genetic proclivity. I participate with my success. The doctors did the amazing technical and scientific part and my job is to be third leg on the stool.”

Learn more about University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care.

And now Shelley is giving her doctors with unique bronze art she made for them.

Metal sculpting has been a longtime hobby for Shelley. In the past, she has been commissioned to make monumental bronze pieces. This time, Shelley created a mold that is reusable. Shelley’s doctors intend to use her mold to recreate the sculptures and present them as an annual award.

“I’m delighted and happy to see that she is doing very well and that I could be of help,” Jha said. “And I’m thankful for the gift and honored.”

“We are appreciative she is giving us this creation of hers, and that she’s sharing her attitude and spirit with us,” Konety added. “That’s the only way you can be when fighting cancer like this. You can try all the medicines in world, but a patient’s attitude is critical. She has it spades. I have a lot of admiration for her.”