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Five-Time Lymphoma Survivor Endures 10 Years with Cancer, Credits Care Team Relationship

Sharon Dunkel
Sharon Dunkel (middle) with daughter Jennifer Polan (left) and granddaughter Nataley Polan (right) at her fashion show fundraising event in 2021

Nearly 15 years ago when Sharon Dunkel was 61 years old she experienced swollen glands and went to her doctor. Assuming it was a cold or virus, she was surprised when instead she was encouraged to see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist right away, amid concern the swollen glands signified something more serious.   

The West Berlin, NJ, mother of two and payroll industry manager, went to her local ENT, underwent testing, and was officially diagnosed with Stage 2 follicular B cell, non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL) — a low grade, slow moving, lymphoma. Along with the diagnosis, Dunkel learned that she likely would spend years coping both mentally and physically with this incurable type of lymphoma, as NHL typically requires several treatments over a lifetime. Most importantly, she would come to appreciate and value the relationships with her medical care team who would cheerlead and support her through this decade-plus journey.

After her diagnosis, with her adult children and husband Bernie by her side, Dunkel began the process to find a reputable and qualified medical care team. They met with a few medical institutions known for cancer care, including one in New York that spoke highly of Penn Medicine. Dunkel was encouraged to consider Penn for its quality care and also because it was closer to home and would be easier for her frequent treatments. This led Dunkel to her future oncologist Sunita D. Nasta, MD, FACP, an associate professor of clinical medicine in Hematology and Oncology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, with the Abramson Cancer Center.

In meeting with Nasta, a board certified hematologist and medical oncologist — with experience in blood-related cancers and lymphatic system disorders that spans over two decades — Dunkel knew she was in the right place to receive the quality care she deserved. Dunkel would also learn to lean on her physician, and the medical care team, as that relationship would become significant to her physical and mental health over the course of her long-term cancer journey.  

Fighting Follicular Lymphoma

Before treatment could begin, more tests were required to determine the type and classification of Dunkel’s cancer as that would determine her prognosis. All NHLs are cancers of the immune system, which arise from lymphocytes — immune cells that are made in the bone marrow and found in blood and lymph tissue — and then classified based on the type of lymphocyte. This includes B-cell, which are more common, or T-cell. While there are many different types of lymphoma, they can be characterized as aggressive (fast growing) or indolent (slow growing).

Dunkel’s was classified as B cell indolent NHL — follicular lymphoma.

Her cancer would continue to come back, four more times, and the disease would transform and become more aggressive.    

In 2012, after a holiday party where she spiked a fever of 103, Dunkel knew that something was wrong. The cancer was back and had advanced to stage 4. As a result, Dunkel required more aggressive therapy, including an autologous stem cell transplant. This process involved multiple cycles of chemotherapy, collection of stem cells, and high dose chemotherapy with stem cell rescue. Each step has its challenges but Dunkel persevered with the help of her medical team.

At the age of 65, Dunkel underwent a successful autologous stem cell transplant with her own cells.

Support to Strengthen Mental Health

Coping with a cancer is hard enough for patients and their loved ones. But, for a cancer that is known to return despite treatment, it can be even more difficult to endure due to the uncertainty of when it may return. 

Fortunately for Dunkel, the relationship she has established with her medical care team, and administrative support, has been an integral part of her ability to cope. In addition, extensive support from her family, friends and colleagues, has been helpful to her on this emotional and physical rollercoaster ride.  

Along with her husband, their children Eric and Jennifer, and grandchildren Tyler, Nataley, Ryan and Carley — whose names form Dunkel’s business called TNRC Associates — are major reasons she wakes up each day with renewed energy and determination to beat cancer over and over, and to continue her passion to help others.  

“In addition to access to the best available care, an incredibly important part of helping patients to manage with follicular lymphoma is a trusting relationship and comfortable space for them to express their needs and feelings, as the disease comes with mental challenges with every recurrence,” said Nasta. “It can be very scary for patients to know that this cancer can come back many times over their lifetime, and that having a medical care team that includes trust, honesty, and common goals, can help to support their mental health and well-being.”

This much-needed support also includes finding hobbies and activities that are enjoyable and meaningful, so that time is well spent focusing on the positive experiences life can bring.

“I have been truly thankful for the medical expertise and personal care I have and continue to receive at Penn Medicine while managing this cancer that continues throughout my life,” said Dunkel. “Surviving cancer again and again is a lot to bear, but understanding about it and being open with Dr. Nasta, has helped me to be honest with my feelings and frustrations while also finding value in this life — finding ways to shift my emotional distress into giving back and helping others with this disease through fundraising, community service and sharing of my personal experience as inspiration and motivation.”

Dunkel also attributes her ability to cope with each cancer recurrence by vocalizing her feelings and needs with her medical care team and her loved ones. She shares that she chooses to appreciate each day she has been afforded by doing a job she loves, spending time with family and friends, and investing her time in helping others and giving back through advocacy.

Along with her family’s support and participation, Dunkel, for example, raised $10,000 for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of America through a fashion show she started in 2020 that has since doubled in the number of participants and donations, with the next show taking place later this year. As a business owner, Dunkel also donates her time to the National Association of Women Business Owners - South New Jersey Chapter, to support other women professionally. She aims to continue her mission to help others and encourages those with this cancer to find purpose in their lives as that helps the journey to be more manageable.

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