War widow "finds purpose" following Stage 4 cancer diagnosis

Stephanie Lee had already experienced losing her husband in Iraq, and her city in Hurricane Katrina, when she discover she had terminal cancer
Stephanie Lee had already experienced losing ... 05:23

A series of tragedies led war widow Stephanie Lee to an unusual meeting with a group of scientists. They want to revolutionize medicine - and she could end up changing the way doctors treat cancer.

They were brought together by a writer from Esquire magazine who tells her story in this month's issue

It seemed life couldn't possibly bring any more heartache to Lee, who lives in Ocean Springs on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. She had already experienced a great deal of hardship even before being diagnosed with terminal cancer several months ago. 

Over the course of a year, the grandparents who raised Lee died in a car crash, and her husband, Terrence, was killed in Iraq. "You lose all these things back-to-back, and you're like, 'What's your purpose?'" she told correspondent Michelle Miller.

Find out how you can help Stephanie Lee at The Stephanie Lee Fund.

Lee was raising a nine-year-old daughter and pregnant with her second when Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast. She recalled, "I jumped in a truck and drove five hours away. I was actually having contractions while I was traveling."

Days later, Baby Marshelle came into the world. That was about the time Lee met Esquire magazine writer Mark Warren, who described her as an "incredibly strong woman." 

"My colleague and I probably hadn't been so affected by a single day of reporting in our lives," he said. 

After Esquire published the story about her ordeal, Warren and Lee lost touch. Years later, through, she found him again, on Facebook.

"She said, 'Do you remember me?'" Warren said.  "And I said, 'I'll never forget you.'" 

They traded sporadic messages until May 7th, when Lee wrote, "Hey Mark, found out that I had cancer, keep me in your prayers."

Warren said, "How much can one person lose?"

Lee had Stage 4 colon cancer. A doctor gave a life expectancy of between 24 and 28 months.

Asked what was her biggest fear, Lee said, "Not being able to see my daughters grow up. Especially Marshelle, because she's lost so much already. She doesn't deserve to lose any more."

But Warren had an idea. His magazine had recently profiled a mathematician working to turn medicine on its head -- a man who might be able to help Lee, against all odds.

Eric Schadt runs Mount Sinai's Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology in New York. He and his team are using supercomputers to find personalized cures for disease -- mapping a patient's genetic code, then collecting and analyzing massive amounts of biological and clinical data.

They agreed to take on Lee's case.

Having studied Lee's cancer, Schadt said, "We know every single mutation that has occurred: what gene it has occurred in, the pathways that have been disrupted, the biological processes that have been disrupted. Most oncologists today, they'll get a very, very tiny fraction of the information that we generated on Stephanie or would be available to them."

Lee noted that she has a team of about 15 people (and a supercomputer) helping her in the fight. Also helping: thousands of tiny fruit flies. They have tumors that match hers.

"The fact that we can reconstruct the colon cancer tumor of a human in the fly model gives us a lot of power to screen that human tumor against all the existing therapeutics," said Schadt.

After testing every available drug on the flies, they came up with a customized cocktail they believe will wipe out Lee's tumor. "It still hasn't hit me that what's going on could change the way cancer and other diseases can be treated in the future," she said.

Before Lee can begin Schadt's treatment, she has to give conventional chemotherapy a try. But she's already part of something much bigger than herself.

Miller said, "What they learn from you could potentially save thousands, if not millions, of lives down the line. That's pretty heady stuff."

"Remember I said I didn't know what my purpose was? That's my purpose.I found my purpose," Lee replied.

Her fight against cancer is far from over. Once she finishes the so-called "standard of care" chemotherapy, she can begin the custom cocktail treatment. Despite the prognosis, the scientists in New York believe it could save her life -- and she does, too.