Couples Cancer Therapy: Fighting Together

When Linda Leiby was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2018, she had no inkling that she was even sick. Pancreatic cancer is one of the toughest cancers to diagnose as there are very little early-stage warning signs; in most patients, by the time pancreatic cancer shows up, the disease has already spread. 

The Leibys with Dr. John Chabot (center) at Velocity 2019

At the time, Linda was seen by Dr. John Chabot, a world-leading pancreas cancer expert and surgeon, who delivered the news to both Linda and her husband, Ken. Ken also is a cancer patient at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer 18 years ago. Indeed, cancer has played a significant role in this couple’s lives.

Thinking back to the day of her diagnosis, Linda says, “I turned to Ken and said, ‘Well, it looks like we’ll be fighting cancer together.’”

At the beginning of June 2018, Dr. Chabot successfully removed the mass in Linda’s pancreas. Unfortunately, a follow-up scan determined that the cancer had spread to her right lung. Linda was referred to Dr. Joshua Sonnet and the dedicated thoracic surgery team at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia to determine the diagnosis of the new lung lesion, and under their care, Linda had the lung lesion removed which unfortunately was found to be cancer from the pancreas.

With the removal of the tumor in her lung, and then subsequent chemotherapy under her current oncologist, Dr. Gulam Manji, Linda has said that just like it takes a village to care for and raise a child, it takes a village to care for someone when they are sick.

“The silver lining in all of this are the people whom we’ve met and surround us,” says Linda. “That silver lining is extraordinary and very special, and ultimately, life-saving. We’re not alone. We have people all around us, and we’ve just been so blessed in that way. That silver lining carries us. It’s a gift and a gratitude that we feel.”

Both Linda and Ken credit the physicians, nurses, staff, and their entire care team at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia for giving them hope, and the opportunity to feel in control of their cancer and treatment options.  

"We have a lot of confidence in our doctors,” says Ken. “They’ve always been straightforward with us.”

What stands out to Ken is how many different people have gone out of their way at Columbia to form this trusting bond.

“We’ve spent a lot of time at Columbia Medical Center, and it has been a huge player in our ability to cope and come through in such an extraordinary way with all of the challenges we’ve faced,” says Ken.

Linda Leiby and Dr. Gulam Manji were recently honored at the National Pancreas Foundation Awards ceremony (Courtesy of NPF)

Ken, who is under the care of two of the foremost leaders in prostate cancer, Drs. James McKiernan and Charles Drake, has recently completed a clinical trial involving six months of a series of immunotherapy injections to help fight off the prostate cancer. Prior to coming to Columbia, Ken had been a patient at a New Jersey hospital undergoing a rigorous drug regimen that he wasn’t happy with.

“I had been fighting prostate cancer for years, and I was at the point where I needed a second opinion,” says Ken. “While Dr. Drake didn’t tell me anything startling, I just immediately liked him.”

In describing his experience on the clinical trial, Ken uses an atypical choice of words: relaxing.

“The Adult Research Infusion Center at Columbia was really the only place that I felt like I could relax,” he says. “I knew I was going to get a couple of hours alone, where nobody bothers me, and I knew they were going to take good care of me. I was even able to have acupuncture treatments while I was in the chair.”

Ken’s PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, levels will continue to be monitored now that he has completed treatment, with the hope they remain low for an extended time. Linda, who currently has no evidence of disease, has maintained an active lifestyle and continues to regain strength. She recently joined the YMCA near their home in the suburbs of New Jersey, walks on a regular basis, and enjoys trail biking with her husband.

The duo, who celebrated 37 years of marriage on April 17, the exact day of Linda’s last chemo treatment, filled their summer with family vacations. They vacationed on the Cape, in New Hampshire, and in Maine, and celebrated with friends and family at weddings and Linda’s birthday celebration in June. This fall, the Leibys participated in Velocity, Columbia’s marquis fundraiser for cancer research. Ken completed the 45-mile route and Linda biked the 10-mile “Palisades Push,” along with friends from home.

Their hope remains strong to conquer cancer, and their team at NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia has been a mainstay in providing that support.

“Dr. Manji’s advice to us has been to go out and have a good time,” says Linda. “He said, ‘Let me worry about what the future may hold. Your job is to go out and live life.’”

-Melanie A. Farmer