Cancer Warrior: Leonel Rodriguez defies odds with clinical trial

Leonel Rodriguez, Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor
Cancer Warrior Leonel Rodriguez

“I live like every day is the last day of my life.”

Leonel Rodriguez, Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor


By Orith Farago

In 2019, Leonel Rodriguez was told he had a few months to live. He was diagnosed with an aggressive, incurable form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma — a cancer that affects white blood cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body’s immune system. In non-Hodgkin lymphoma, abnormal lymphocytes begin to collect and form tumors throughout the body, losing their ability to fight infections.

The father of five from Kingsville, Texas, promptly made a will and prepared for his final days. Three years later, the 72-year-old cancer warrior has defied the odds and enjoys an excellent quality of life, thanks to a clinical trial he joined at the Mays Cancer Center.

A devastating diagnosis

In 2015, Rodriguez had a heart attack.

“I probably had the cancer at that time, but I did not know,” said Rodriguez. “I didn’t feel the symptoms until maybe six to eight months after the heart attack.” Then, in 2016, Rodriguez noticed some lumps on his neck. Each time he had the flu or was ill, the lumps grew, and he got tooth infections. By 2019, his lumps continued to swell and spread. They were under his arms, by his ears and beneath his hair. He also suffered more infections.

After visiting his family doctor, Rodriguez was referred to a specialist in Corpus Christi. By then, he had black spots on his arms and parts of his feet were turning black.

Rodriguez was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive subtype of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that affects the B cells — lymphocytes that originate from the mantle zone, located in the outer part of the lymph nodes.

Mantle cell lymphoma makes up about 5% of all non- Hodgkin lymphomas and tends to affect men more than women, according to the National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information.

“The doctor said that he was sorry, but I was not going to live more than three or four more months,” Rodriguez recalled. “He said that there were some trials going on in Houston and San Antonio, so I said, ‘yes, I will try San Antonio.’” Rodriguez immediately scheduled an appointment at the Mays Cancer Center.

Specialized care that made a difference

In November 2019, Rodriguez saw Matthew Butler, MD, medical director of hematology at the Mays Cancer Center, and received access to more comprehensive treatment options and more specialized care. At that time, Rodriguez had stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Considering his atrial fibrillation (abnormal heart rhythm), hypertension and age, Rodriguez started treatment in January 2020 with a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy to boost his immune system. He had a good response, but his disease relapsed in March 2021.

Rodriguez then received targeted therapy aimed at specific molecules in his cancer cells. The targeted therapy controlled his disease for another seven months before he relapsed again. At that point, Rodriguez received another combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy that worked for three months before he experienced another relapse.

After receiving three lines of therapy, Butler referred Rodriguez’s case to his colleague Enrique Diaz, MD, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology- Oncology. Diaz recommended that Rodriguez join a phase 1 global clinical trial that the Mays Cancer Center was participating in for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“I had the experience of several patients having not just a good efficacy from the [clinical trial medication], but really minimal side effects,” Diaz said. “When you have a patient who has been treated with several lines of therapy, this individual probably does not have a very robust immune system, so this is the type of therapy you would like to use.”

In June 2022, Rodriguez started the first 28-day cycle of the three-year trial and received the medication as a tablet called HMPL-689. Rodriguez was pleased that the medication had no side effects and he could save hours of commuting by taking the medication at home.

Within weeks, his condition improved. By the end of his first month, a mass on his head that was half the size of a golf ball was almost gone. Other masses on his body also began to shrink or disappear. He had achieved a partial to complete response, meaning the sizes of his masses — mainly in the abdominal cavity — had shrunk between 50% and 100%.

Living life with purpose and gratitude

Throughout his cancer journey, Rodriguez said he appreciated the Mays Cancer Center’s experts and the care teams who helped him along the way. This includes his experiences with the welcome center where he checked in before heading to his appointments, the nurses in the infusion center and hematology clinic, and his doctors and medical assistants.

“They are wonderful,” Rodriguez said. “They saved my life.” Today, Rodriguez lives each day with purpose and gratitude. “I live like every day is the last day of my life.”


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