On December 18, 2008, Matthew Jahner was first diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). Over Christmas break during his senior year of high school, Jahner went into the doctor for some rib pain. Not thinking much of it, because he had been playing much racquetball and chalked it up to a strained muscle or rib being out of place, Jahner was referred from Dickinson to Bismarck where he quickly learned he had cancer.
ALL is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell. At the age of 17, Jahner was then sent to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN where they started the induction phase of chemotherapy along with steroids to treat his ALL. After about two weeks, he was considered in remission. While there, Jahner had received some good news when the doctors told him that if the cancer was to come back, it would most likely happen within that same year. That following year came and went.
At the time, after the initial diagnosis, Jahner had been wanting to go to college to pursue a degree in the oil industry. While he did get his petroleum engineering degree, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to continue that job path in his current state. Dakota Community Bank & Trust (DCB&T) made room for Jahner on their team to enable him to work a couple hours as he was able. Once healthy enough, Jahner made the move to Bismarck and transitioned from Dickinson to DCB&T’s Bismarck North branch.
He had been in remission for five years, when the cancer came back. This time, it started with pain in his sternum. “I went in and they found it was in my blood. So, I went back to Rochester and I was supposed to do a bone marrow transplant but I didn’t have a match, so they decided to do a double umbilical cord stem cell transplant,” recalls Jahner. He goes on to explain how they drew stem cells out of two babies’ umbilical cords and gave him those cells. The stronger cells out of the two took over in his body allowing Jahner back into remission for nearly two years. During this time, Jahner had a double hip replacement.
“When I relapsed again, Rochester said there wasn’t too much more they could do for me. We looked around at other places and decided to go with Seattle where they did CAR-T immunotherapy, which involves taking my bodies t-cells out of my body and modifying them to attack a specific protein on my cancer cell called CD19. They then gave my modified cells back to me and the t-cells went to work killing the cancer cells.” Jahner recalls that when this happened, the cancer cells released a toxic causing him to experience cytokine release syndrome in which he experienced terrible fevers, hallucinations, and septic shock. After that subsided, he stayed at the local Ronald McDonald house for several months while doctoring in Seattle.
He was in remission for roughly a year and a half.
“Out of nowhere it came back again and I relapsed again.” Since it had been a few years from Jahner’s first transplant, they looked to do a bone marrow transplant, but again there was no match on the bone marrow registry. So, the doctors decided for a second time to do double umbilical cord transplant. After the transplant, he developed severe respiratory infections including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), pneumonia, adenovirus, and others. “You name a respiratory virus, I had it.” Because of those infections, Jahner was in isolation in the hospital for 97 straight days in 2017. Once he cleared those symptoms, he still remained in Seattle’s hospital, for a total of six months, but was able to leave the room and walk around while doctoring.
Jahner received a second backup transplant in April of 2018. Between living in the Ronald McDonald house and the hospital, Jahner had been out in Seattle for approximately a year and a half. In January of 2019, Jahner finally got to come back home in remission.
Then, in May of 2019, Jahner went in for his one year checkup from his 2018 spring transplant, and for the fifth time, he knew he would have to battle ALL. “I had relapsed again. Because I had a second transplant and had all new cells in my body, they had decided to do a second CAR-T immunotherapy.” Because Jahner was no longer under the FDA guidelines to do the CAR-T immunotherapy, he remained at home from May through October until the trial was amended to include him into that same procedure that had once worked. About a month later, Jahner received those modified t-cells for a second time and again experienced cytokine release syndrome.
“I found out I was in remission. The t-cells did their job again. This time, they did a different trial called the PLAT-03 trial which involves getting the t-cells and also coming back once a month for six months to get a booster of those t-cells that keep circulating in my body.”
In February of 2020, Matt received his second t-cell booster while doctoring in Seattle. Jahner states that to check his status, they issued Next Generation Sequencing to take a deeper look into his bone marrow sample which showed he is currently in a deep remission. “I have never been in this deep of remission since I started this whole thing. I had always had a little bit of residual disease but this time showed nothing, so that’s good,” says Jahner.
To continue down this path, Jahner will get blood work done weekly in Bismarck as long as those t-cells are still circulating in his blood together with those monthly boosters.
When remembering his cancer journey, Jahner is grateful to DCB&T for many things done to aid in his recovery efforts; from paying for his family to come visit and give his mom respite care while in Seattle during his third bout with cancer to accommodating his schedule while work doctoring. “They have been absolutely wonderful throughout everything. They have had benefits for me. They have raised money for me. Staff had come out to visit me while I was in Seattle,” mentions Jahner. “They put me first. They put the employee first and the community first above all else. They care more about their people and their communities rather than the business in times like this. I feel like anywhere else would have said ‘see ya later,’ and not kept me on their staff and did all of the other things they did.”
While ALL is the most common type of childhood cancer there is, it is also said to be the most curable. “It’s been a long journey. You name it, I have probably been through it. There have been a lot of bumps in the road. Every time I have been in remission, it has been out of the ordinary that it has come back. Seattle told me I am a unique case. They have never had anybody who has done two transplants and two t-cell immunotherapy transfusions. They are in unknown territory with me as far as statistics go. For some reason, my cancer is persistent. There must be something a little bit different in my cancer cell that is making it so resistant.”
Though unclear of what the future looks like for Jahner, the Make-A-Wish® North Dakota volunteer, while presently in deep remission, knows that ALL can (and has) pop up out of nowhere. Getting married in October, Jahner is just working day by day to get stronger and living his life the best he knows how.
Written by Lindsey Hefta, Marketing Director