The Peays celebrate the end of Mrs. Peay's treatment along with Radiation Oncology team members (from left) Dr. William Regine, Nancy Kennedy, R.N., Martha Francis, C.R.N.P., and Jill Rosenberg
Fatima Peay had always been active and in good health. She ate well, exercised and took good care of herself and her husband, Michael, and their then 7-year-old son, Omar. So she was surprised when she suddenly developed a pain in her stomach and couldn’t finish an exercise class at her gym one day in February 2012.
She took an over-the-counter medicine, but the pain still didn’t go away, so she went to her primary care doctor the next day. “You don’t look well. You’ve lost weight, and your skin color is yellow,” Mrs. Peay, 45, recalls the doctor telling her and immediately ordering blood tests and scans to determine the cause of the pain and jaundice.
Mrs. Peay knew the results were not good when, later that same day, the doctor told her to come back to her office right away – and bring someone with her. An ultrasound and CT scan had revealed a tumor on her pancreas. It likely was cancer.
“It was a big shock to me. I was healthy. I was doing everything,” says Mrs. Peay, a homemaker from Silver Spring, Md. Reading about pancreatic cancer on the internet terrified her even more. “I was very scared. I couldn’t sleep. It says you don’t have a lot of time to live, just weeks,” she says. Her husband was equally traumatized by the news.
Her doctor sent her to a gastroenterologist, who told her she needed a stent placed in her pancreas before she could have surgery to remove the cancer. The tumor was blocking the flow of bile into her gallbladder and causing the jaundice. The doctor attempted to do the procedure himself, but, due to the unusual orientation of Mrs. Peay’s gallbladder, was unsuccessful. He arranged for Mrs. Peay to be seen right away by Dr. Peter Darwin, a gastroenterologist at the Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center. Dr. Darwin was able to place the stent, and a few hours later in the recovery room, the couple met with Dr. H. Richard Alexander, Jr., a surgical oncologist, to discuss Mrs. Peay’s surgery.
She was to have what is known as the Whipple procedure – a major operation in which surgeons remove the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder and part of the small intestine. Michael Peay says Dr. Alexander, who specializes in treating pancreatic and other gastrointestinal cancers, described the entire procedure from start to finish, even drawing a detailed diagram for them.
“It was clear what would happen. I had the responsibility to explain to Fatima’s family and my family what was going on, and thanks to Dr. Alexander, I was always in a position to explain what was going on and calm them down,” Mr. Peay says.
“I felt happy when I saw Dr. Alexander before the surgery,” Fatima Peay continues. “He said to me, ‘Look, we will take good care of you. I promise.’ I knew I would like this man. We didn’t see the need to seek out any other doctors. The confidence between us was instantaneous and solid,” Mrs. Peay says. She says Dr. Alexander also helped to allay her fears about what she had read online about her disease. “He told me that what I was seeing on the internet is not true for everybody.”
Mrs. Peay had the six-hour procedure on March 15, 2012. “After the surgery, Dr. Alexander, in his quiet and humble manner, joyfully told us the operation was shockingly successful. There was no evidence that the cancer had spread,” Mr. Peay, a retired, Harvard-educated attorney recalls. “He said, ‘I do a lot of these procedures, and I’ve never had one where I was able to remove the tumor so cleanly.’ ”
Mrs. Peay began her long, slow recovery, first in the hospital and later at home. Her aunt came from Morocco to stay with the family in Silver Spring for a month to help out. “I lost a lot of weight and I was very, very weak. Thank God I had good support. My husband, my son, my family, my friends and I felt very thankful and happy about the outcome,” Mrs. Peay says.
A month after her surgery, she started six months of intravenous chemotherapy – every Friday for three weeks with the fourth Friday off – under the care of Dr. M. Naomi Horiba, a “superb” medical oncologist, according to Mrs. Peay. Dr. Horiba is part of the multidisciplinary medical team at the cancer center that treats patients with pancreatic cancer.
Mrs. Peay agreed to take part in a clinical trial for patients who have had their pancreatic cancer removed surgically. The clinical study, led by Dr. William Regine, chairman of the University of Maryland Department of Radiation Oncology and a pancreatic cancer expert, is designed to evaluate adding the anti-cancer agent erlotinib to a standard chemotherapy drug, gemcitabine, and combining other chemotherapy drugs with radiation. Mrs. Peay was selected to receive radiation treatments for six weeks, five days a week, combined with an oral chemotherapy.
She had her last treatment on Dec. 13, 2012 – just in time to take a long-planned, three-week vacation to the Caribbean with her husband and son. She has no evidence of cancer and has CT scans every three months to closely monitor her health.
“I feel grateful really. I now walk, go the gym, I do my exercises. I do my work at home. It’s the same as it was before,” Mrs. Peay says. Mr. Peay said that the jaundice that his wife experienced was the “canary in the mine shaft,” which allowed physicians to diagnose her condition early and treat it aggressively. The location of the tumor in her pancreas also made it easier to remove than other pancreatic cancers, he says.
“In many ways, her experience was a beautiful miracle,” Mr. Peay says. “Here she is a year later, almost a year to the day, her life is active and dynamic. She has a future that is bright and happy, thanks to the absolutely superlative team at the Greenebaum Cancer Center.”
“I have been in a lot of scary situations in my life, but nothing close to finding out my wife had pancreatic cancer,” he continues. “We had faith in God. We prayed, and our family prayed. The courage that was instilled in us by these gifted physicians and their outstanding medical team was the wind beneath our wings to keep us moving forward. We have undying love and appreciation to the team at the cancer center. And we have communicated that to them. There are just not any words to describe how wonderful these people are.”