Nick’s House Stories: Meet Leslie and Mark

By: Jennifer Hoffman

Cancer completely uproots your existence. It interferes with your daily routine and life as you know it is flipped upside down in the blink of an eye.

For Leslie and Mark Bronder, spending time with their growing family and newborn grandchildren was put on pause when Leslie received the unexpected news that she had ovarian cancer. Leslie has battled this disease on and off for the last five years, and is determined to continue the fight during her second go around with cancer. 

The constant pain, tiredness and bloating that she attributed to just “getting older” wasn’t menopause symptoms, it was something far worse. “I went to my gynecologist and she examined me. She said that she wasn’t really liking what she was feeling, and ordered an ultrasound, which I was able to get the next day. They pretty much knew then and there that things weren’t good and it was a whirlwind. “ recalled Leslie.

That appointment confirmed that her ovarian cancer had returned and this time with avengence. Before she could even comprehend what was going on inside her body the doctors started her on chemotherapy immediately. Leslie’s cancer was growing at a rapid pace, doubling in size every three weeks, so the oncologists at her hospital in Pittsburgh recommended intense treatment right off the bat. But she would have to travel to Philadelphia in order to receive it. 

It was in that moment that the Pittsburgh, PA couple realized that the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania would become their new home for the next several months. Trying to wrap themselves around the fact that the cancer came back aggressively and being displaced from their home to receive life saving treatment was more than the couple expected. The social workers at UPenn suggested Nick’s House to Mark and Leslie as a safe haven during their time of need. 

The Swarthmore residence would become their home away from home during this scary situation but once they walked through the doors of Nick’s House, it felt as if a weight was lifted off their shoulders. “We couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay, it’s been very comfortable here. The volunteers have just been so great, everyone was just so caring and kind. We got a warm feeling as soon as we walked in the house.” remarked Leslie. 

Leslie did not respond to the initial chemotherapy treatment very well and affirmed that it was the worst part of her whole cancer hardship, other than the effects it had on her family. Luckily for Leslie, her oncologist in Pittsburgh is a self-proclaimed research junkie and learned about a clinical trial at UPenn; as it turned out, Leslie was a great fit for the trial. “She was pretty excited about it and really wanted us to try it. She felt that I was at a good stage that we had time to do it.” said Leslie.

The clinical trial consisted of a T-Cell therapy in hopes that the healthy cells would attack the cancer cells over time. Leslie is the fifth patient to go through the trial and although the trial is 0-4 in terms of patients going into remission, this time around seems to be different. Leslie had some side effects after the procedure, which in her case was a good thing. The fever that her body developed meant that she was reacting to the t-cells. 

“It’s CRS, Cytokine Release Syndrome and it’s very common with t-cell therapy and the first four women did not get signs of it. So Leslie had signs of it and they’re (oncologist) hopeful that if we go in next week that they’re going to see something positive.” said Mark.  

Mark has been Leslie’s rock throughout this entire journey and her family has truly helped her rally through the toughest moments. “We try to stay positive because if I’m down or upset, it’s going to be worse for my family so I try to keep busy and just keep positive. I trust my doctors.” said Leslie.

Cancer doesn’t just affect the patient but the entire family. For Mark and Leslie, it’s been a ripple effect for everyone involved. 

“I think the hardest thing, even harder than the disease itself, is the effects that it has on your family, and what it does to everything, everybody, how it changes your life, everything changes. That always just made me feel sad. I knew that my family was hurting and they were all very strong all the time and I knew that it was hard for them, so I think that the hardest thing for me is just worrying about them.” Leslie remarked. 

After a long six week stay at Nick’s House Leslie and Mark left with high hopes that her T-Cell therapy will be successful. She will have to return to UPenn for a few check up appointments and if all goes well, the t-cells will continue to attack the cancer cells and in time she will be cancer free.  Returning to reality and getting back to their normal routine is something that Mark and Leslie are extremely eager to do, especially with news that a new grandchild is on the way heading home this time is extra sweet.