Revisiting the stories, patients, doctors and researchers that made our year incredible – MUSC Hollings Cancer Center’s top stories of 2022

December 28, 2022
a collage of 10 images showing the people represented in the Hollings top stories of the year
The amazing patients, doctors and researchers at Hollings have displayed hope and determination throughout 2022.

It’s been another incredible year at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center — from exciting clinical trials and new doctors with big ideas to the touching, emotional and heartfelt stories of our amazing patients. Here are our top stories of 2022.

Survivor on a mission to raise awareness about multiple myeloma, address health disparities

Tif Williams stands in front of a tree 
Tiffany Williams. Photo by Josh Birch

If you don’t know the signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma, you’re a part of Tiffany Williams' mission in life. And Williams is a force to be reckoned with.

In 2013, Williams led an exciting, busy life. She loved her work as both a pediatric nurse practitioner and an assistant professor in the Medical University of South Carolina’s College of Nursing. She enjoyed volunteering in her community and church and raising a family.

Then everything shifted. That fall, she started experiencing terrible back pain and battling intense fatigue. Her pain felt similar to what she’d experienced years earlier when she was diagnosed with a lumbar disc herniation, and the fatigue was easily explained away by her hectic lifestyle, so she wasn’t too worried. To err on the safe side, she saw a doctor, who discovered she was anemic. This explained her fatigue, so he did not run any more tests. Williams went back to her day-to-day routine with no reason to believe anything else was wrong.

When the pain increased, she visited the doctor who performed her lumber discectomy years earlier. A scan of her lower body showed osteolytic lesions in her spine. That’s when Williams decided to return to MUSC. She was seen by neurosurgeon Bruce Frankel, M.D., for a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, which confirmed a diagnosis of multiple myeloma.

City of Charleston police chief tells love story of sarcoma cancer journey

a man uses walking supports shakes the hand of a staff member 
Chief Reynolds greets Dawn Morgan, a patient access representative, at Hollings. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Tears come to the eyes of Luther Reynolds more easily now. But he’s OK with that. Cancer, the kind of battle he has had to fight, will do that to a person. The tears are a badge of honor for the City of Charleston chief of police, who is known for his grit and determination as well as his kind heart and generosity.

He’s been through the wringer since his diagnosis with sarcoma in October of last year. Sarcoma is a type of cancer that begins in bone or in the soft tissues of the body. To make matters worse, Reynolds has a rare form called a triton tumor, maybe one of 100 such tumors ever reported. It’s a cancer that would end up taking his right leg, part of his hip and sacrum.

“I really believe that God has more work for me to do. Now, instead of two legs, I just got to figure out how to do it with one.”

The latest science with a human touch: Hollings oncology nurses honored for their work with hospitalized patients

a nurse wearing gloves and a blue paper gown sits on a bed alongside a man in a hospital gown and puts her arm over his shoulder 
Carrie Moore, R.N., takes a minute with patient Chris Hayden. Photo by Kristin Lee

High above Courtenay Drive, above the blaring music and tempting smells emanating from nearby food trucks, above the ambulances racing to the Emergency Department, above the cars zipping across the James Island Connector, a quiet stillness reigns on the seventh floor of Ashley River Tower, where the nurses of the HOPE unit compassionately and confidently tend to the most vulnerable patients in the hospital.

HOPE is an acronym — hematologic oncologic protective environment — but it’s also a state of mind. The patients on this floor are too immunocompromised to elbow their way through a hungry lunchtime crowd to one of the food trucks below. They include some of the sickest cancer patients from throughout the state, and they’re here, in the inpatient unit of MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, to be cared for by the expert nursing staff until, hopefully, they can go home.

HOPE unit nurse manager Carrie Moore, R.N., and clinical staff leader Sarah Verner, R.N., were each selected this year as recipients of the Palmetto Gold, an honor bestowed on 100 registered nurses from across South Carolina who exemplify excellence in nursing practice and commitment to the profession.

From anatomy lab to cancer battle, MUSC student shows gratitude by taking on LOWVELO bike ride

photo of a young woman in tee shirt and jeans posing with bike 
Bridget Horgan. Photo by Kristin Lee

At first glance, Bridget Horgan is your typical MUSC student - bright, eager and ready to learn. But what you don’t see on the surface is the grit and determination that got her through her first year of graduate school.

In May 2021, Horgan was checking things off her to-do list before leaving home in New York to start her doctorate program in occupational therapy at the MUSC College of Health Professions. “I went for some doctor's appointments before moving down here just to do like, checkups and get my shots up to date and everything,” she said. “And my doctor felt a lump in my throat.”

Horgan found herself moving to a new city and school as well as finding her way across campus to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. Horgan met with surgical oncologist Mahsa Javid, M.D., Ph.D., who suggested she have the lump removed quickly. “A week and a half after I met the surgeon, she said we were going to do the surgery,” Horgan said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have an anatomy exam in a week.’”

Hollings Cancer Center and newly formed Southeastern Consortium for Lung Cancer Health Equity awarded $3 million Stand Up To Cancer grant

Dr. Gerard Silvestri and Dr. Marvella Ford stand together in a garden 
Drs. Gerard Silvestri and Marvella Ford are co-leading the Hollings portion of the consortium. Photo by Josh Birch

MUSC Hollings Cancer Center received its first Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) grant that will make it part of the Southeastern Consortium for Lung Cancer Health Equity (SC3), a group that will focus on why lung cancer continues to be one of the leading causes of death among racially and ethnically diverse populations in the nation.

The $3 million four-year grant will facilitate health disparities research and scientific collaborations among researchers at three National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers and form the SU2C Lung Cancer Health Equity Research Team. The grant is made possible by the support of Bristol Myers Squibb and is a part of SU2C’s Health Equity Initiative.

The initiative focuses on increasing diversity in cancer clinical trials, initiating advocacy group collaborations and awareness campaigns and funding research aimed at improving cancer outcomes and screening rates in medically underserved communities.

Hollings rolls out tailored physical therapy program for cancer patients, survivors

Susan Bryant Thomas reads while practicing balance during physical therapy at Hollings. Photo by Josh Birch 
Susan Bryant Thomas (left) reads while practicing balance during physical therapy with Dr. Katie Schmitt. Photo by Josh Birch

To be, or not to be. That’s the question for Susan Bryant Thomas, 65, as she stands on one foot reciting a popular Shakespeare soliloquy. She’s working on her balance with MUSC Hollings Cancer Center physical therapist Katie Schmitt, DPT. It’s not a conventional way to do physical therapy, but it’s the perfect one for Thomas, a multiple myeloma patient at Hollings.

“I happened to mention one day that I liked Shakespeare and so does Katie,” Thomas said. “After that, she started to give me at-home exercises and told me to pick out a soliloquy and practice reciting it on one foot to work on my balance. It’s one way she makes the whole experience fun.”

Helping cancer patients to regain strength and mobility using physical therapy is a personal mission for Schmitt, who lost her dad, uncle and mother-in-law to cancer. “I’ve seen what cancer can do to somebody firsthand. When my dad was in hospice, he really wanted to get up and move around. That got me thinking, ‘How can we get you to move as much as possible?’ I think one of the things that would have been helpful for him is if he could’ve had someone come to the house and help him maintain whatever mobility was possible.”

Husband, wife face respective cancer diagnoses with thanksgiving, humor

a husband and wife, dual cancer survivors, share a laugh 
Beth and Kerry Hardy. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Kerry Hardy shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be going to work teaching daycares and church groups how to do CPR; shouldn’t be watching his youngest, his 11-year-old son, grow up; shouldn’t be endlessly teasing his wife.

Seven years after being given two years to live, Kerry Hardy shouldn’t be here.

But he is.

Thanks to clinical trials that he enrolled in at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center under the care of oncologist John Wrangle, M.D., Kerry is continuing to live his life, celebrating milestones with all four of his sons and dealing with the ups and downs of lung cancer along the way.

“We never thought we’d see seven years. Ever,” said Kerry’s wife, Beth.

During these last seven years, not only have they continued to pursue new and different cutting-edge therapies, but they also dealt with Beth’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2020.

Immunotherapy trial gives melanoma patient a chance for recovery without surgery

a photo of a man sitting on a dais with an inset photo of him with the large melanoma on his face 
Tim Buikema, before and after treatment.

One of the most gratifying parts of the job for oncologist John Kaczmar, M.D., is being able to offer skin cancer patients the newest treatments that can potentially cure their cancer without requiring surgery, radiation or chemotherapies with disabling side effects.

That’s what happened with Tim Buikema. A clinical trial of two immunotherapy drugs in combination helped his body’s own immune system to take down a melanoma, to the point that PET scans now show no signs of cancer.

“That is just the most amazing thing, when we can offer patients early access to therapies that have the potential to become standard-of-care,” Kaczmar said.

Two-time cancer patient advises women to advocate for themselves and to keep hope alive

a woman with nearly bald head and bright pink shirt laughs 
Danielle Lee. Photo by Kristin Lee

When Danielle Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36, it was her second go-round with cancer. The first time, a decade earlier, she had survived leukemia.

How, with no family history of cancer, she ended up a two-time winner of this dubious distinction, she has no idea. What she does know is that her family, her friends, her hair salon clientele and staff, her prayer army and her doctors and nurses at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center have been instrumental in her recovery.

“I’m definitely a walking miracle – for sure,” she said.

MUSC student turns unthinkable loss into a triumph for cancer research

a young woman sits at a picnic table in a garden and smiles at the camera 
Valerie Salmon. Photo by Kristin Lee

It’s one of the worst moments many people experience – the death of a parent. And at just age 22, Valerie Salmon had lost both of hers.

This fall, she participated in LOWVELO 2022 and hopes that her loss will help to ensure that fewer people will go through what she has.

“It’s weird to have gone through it two times now and to see their different experiences,” said Salmon. “With my dad, I wasn’t able to really lean on anyone. I didn’t really talk about it.”

When Salmon was just 14, she lost her father, Robert, to pancreatic cancer. Hard as it was to cope and process the loss, Salmon said that experience helped to prepare her when the unthinkable happened a second time. During her senior year of college, she found out that her mother, Jennifer, had ovarian cancer.