Gala Supports Pancreatic Cancer Research

At the Gala (from left): William Pennington, Hannah Recknor, Walter Pennington, Donna Pennington, Gladys Yumet, Christopher Wolfgang, and the research team — Ammar Javed, Michael Wright, Kanza Aziz, Alina Hasanain and Floortje van Oosten.

Inspired by their love for their son, William, gratitude for his cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins, and religious faith, Donna and Walter Pennington created and hosted the inaugural Faith Hope Love Gala in January 2019 at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Along with their daughter, Charlotte, and the gala committee, their efforts raised nearly $200,000 in what they plan to be the first of many annual galas to support pancreatic cancer research at Johns Hopkins. 

William was working toward a doctorate in political science at Cornell University in 2016 when he started experiencing pain and discomfort. This led him home to Chevy Chase, Maryland, to have medical tests done, around which time he developed jaundice. His doctors put a stent in his biliary duct and did a biopsy on a mass on his pancreas, resulting in a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer

William began chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, and then had to decide where to go for surgery. After meeting with Christopher Wolfgang, director of hepatobiliary and pancreatic surgery at Johns Hopkins, William chose to come to Johns Hopkins. “He had a humility about him that I found extremely inspiring, and behind it was great skill,” says William. 

In September 2016, Wolfgang performed a successful Whipple operation to remove the head of the pancreas, the upper part of the small intestine, the gallbladder and the bile duct. However, by 2018, William experienced a cancer recurrence, prompting Wolfgang to do a second, customized surgery to remove lymph nodes and a localized recurrence. While continuing treatment, William maintains his positive outlook and is moving forward with his life. He is now engaged and living in Boston. 

William defines his experience at Johns Hopkins as “utterly world class.” 

“Dr. Wolfgang and postdoc researcher Ammar Javed not only saved my life on a medical and scientific level, but they very much know how to treat people,” he says. “I could not recommend them highly enough.” 

Raising Awareness about Pancreatic Cancer

Donna says she felt a higher calling to put on the gala: “After going through this journey with William, I realized that I needed to find a way to help our son first and then help the rest of the world with this deadly disease.” She believed the gala would be a way to raise awareness, and she was correct — almost 190 people attended. 

“There’s an incredible feeling of helplessness” watching your child being treated for cancer, adds Walter. “We’re doing whatever we can to support William and get him to the right medical people, but there’s nothing else we can do. The gala felt like a way to actually have some control while raising consciousness of the disease.”

The contributions raised through the gala will help fund Wolfgang’s studies of circulating tumor cells that break free from the primary tumor and travel through the bloodstream, contributing to metastases. By the time pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, even if it’s early, it may already be systemic and recur, says Wolfgang: “If we can better understand these cells, their vulnerabilities and mechanisms of growth, we hopefully can develop novel therapies to prevent recurrences in patients who undergo surgery.”

William is a fighter who has gone through his treatments with grace, Wolfgang adds. “What’s really heartwarming about his family,” he says, “is even though his care is ongoing, they’ve looked at the bigger picture and have been very altruistic in saying they want to make the situation better for others. They have gone above and beyond in getting support from many people through this gala and other means to support research at Johns Hopkins.” 

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