It takes a team to get through primary peritoneal cancer

Ever since Kathy Brown was diagnosed with primary peritoneal cancer in 2018, her husband Andy has been at her side. He drives her to appointments, helps with housework, cares for their 14-year-old son and helps keep Kathy’s spirits lifted.

“He’s been phenomenal,” Kathy says. “You never know how strong your marriage is until one of you has cancer. He has taken on everything and has never complained.” 

Kathy often refers to Andy as her cancer coach. It’s a role he’s pretty comfortable with. After all, he’s a high school girls’ soccer coach and math teacher. But Andy isn’t the only one who’s been there for Kathy. His soccer team has, too.

The players wear teal hair ribbons on the soccer field to show their support for Kathy, and one player even organized a fundraiser to help the Browns pay out-of-pocket costs not covered by their health insurance.

“They’ve been so helpful and so caring,” Kathy says. “They’ll text me or email me or send me a message, ‘Hey, Miss Kathy. How are you doing today? Just thinking about you.’ Little things like that that make you feel better. They just show that they care in so many different ways.”

Choosing MD Anderson to take on peritoneal cancer

In 2016, Kathy tripped and fell over a branch hidden under some leaves while taking photographs. The resulting pain led her to her primary care doctor, and eventually, a neurosurgeon. When months of pain management efforts didn’t work, she underwent surgery in 2017.

Her back finally felt better, but she still had pain near her hip. After more scans, her doctor discovered a mass near her hip. He referred her to an orthopaedic oncologist at MD Anderson, who conducted an MRI, X-rays, CT scan and biopsy, and then referred Kathy to MD Anderson gynecologic oncologist Michaela Onstad, M.D. After a percutaneous CT-guided biopsy, Onstad and her team determined that Kathy had primary peritoneal cancer, a rare cancer of the tissue inside the abdomen.

Kathy’s primary peritoneal cancer treatment

Primary peritoneal cancer is treated similarly to ovarian cancer because the cells of both types of cancer are similar in structure. In Kathy’s case, that meant starting with six rounds of intravenous chemotherapy using a combination of paclitaxel, carboplatin, bevacizumab and pegfilgrastim.

The side effects — hair loss, nausea and fatigue — came on suddenly. But Kathy learned to cope, coming to her appointments with snacks to keep the nausea away, a book to keep her busy and her favorite pillow for comfort.

When the chemotherapy failed to shrink the tumor, her care team, including Onstad and radiation oncologist Lilie Lin, M.D., recommended a clinical trial. As a part of the clinical trial, a type of radiation therapy called stereotactic ablative radiotherapy is used to shrink the cancer in combination with immunotherapy drugs durvalumab and tremelimumab. Now Kathy comes for monthly immunotherapy infusions. She opted to have a port surgically implanted to make these infusions more efficient and less painful.

Gratitude for compassionate care at MD Anderson

Kathy’s journey has been difficult, but she appreciates the compassion from Onstad and her team.

“She’s so caring, and she wants everybody to get better,” Kathy says of Onstad. “She’s working hard for that end, and you can tell she just cares about every one of her patients.”

That goes for the nurses and other employees she’s interacted with at MD Anderson. “The level of care is so much higher at MD Anderson,” Kathy says. “You feel it when you talk to a doctor. You feel it when you talk to a nurse or a PA. You feel that they want you to get better. It’s just not lip service.”

Soccer team keeps her spirits lifted

While Kathy’s MD Anderson care team has helped her get the best possible treatment, it’s the girls’ soccer team that’s helped take her mind — and Andy’s — off cancer. The girls’ games give them something to look forward to. Kathy can’t attend them as much as she’d like to anymore, but when Andy comes home from the games, she still wants to know how the game was, who did what and who won.

And the players think of her often. “Just being stuck at home all the time and you get a text from one of these students — it just lifts your spirits so much,” she says. “I can’t tell you how nice it is when one of them does that because it just makes you feel so much better. It tells you somebody is out there thinking of you and they care about you.”

It’s those little things, she says, that make all the difference.

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