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January 8, 2001

Making the decision to live

Joe LaBadia, a regional sales representative for Billings Freight,
is a cancer survivor.

On May 18, 1999, my dad, Lou, passed away from prostate cancer.

I live near Atlanta and returned to New Jersey for the wake and funeral. Many of my relatives asked me what was wrong with my eye. Some said the right eye looked lower than the left; others said it looked like it was bulging out. My wife and I thought it was just allergies, but I did promise myself that I would go see an eye doctor.

I’d been to an eye doctor years ago, but I went again, this time on a Monday morning before I was to leave on a business trip. Instead, that afternoon I was in our small, local hospital having an MRI, and they immediately sent me to Emory Hospital. I saw Dr. Ted Wojno and Dr. Melissa Meldrum.

Dr. Meldrum thought it was a cyst, and I had my first operation in June 1999 to remove it. During the operation, she found a tumor behind the cyst, and she knew it was cancer. She told my wife and brother but waited for the pathology report before she told me.

Eye cancer is rare in and of itself, accounting for only 1 percent of all cancers. What I had—Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC)—is very rare. There was little written on it. I had ACC of the lacrimal (tear duct) gland.

Even though I had cancer, Dr. Meldrum seemed to be heaven sent; her specialty was ACC. She had treated three patients with ACC of the lacrimal gland with a new chemotherapy treatment she had developed in Miami. She’d moved to Emory and Atlanta only the year before, and I would be the first patient at Emory to undergo the procedure.

I would have this procedure done three times, each three weeks apart. I would be hospitalized for five days, and the chemo drug (Cisplatin) would be injected directly into my eye to shrink the tumor.
For the first treatment, I was taken to the operating room, where a team of intravention radiologists performed a heart catheterization. They made a cut in my thigh and inserted a tube up through my heart, into the carotid artery and then to my eye. The Cisplatin was sent to my eye through this tube.

The procedure took five hours, and then I had to lie flat and immobile for another five hours. When I returned to my room, I got a dose of another chemo drug, Adriamyacin. I received a total of three doses over the next five days. Altogeth-er, I received 285 units of chemo every 21 days.

I decided to beat this cancer from Day One. When I woke up from the chemo treatments, my face and neck were swollen. I had gained 12 pounds over-night. I pulled myself out of bed and walked laps around the nurse’s station. They were shocked that I was up and out of bed. I had to sleep sitting up in a chair for a week. My white blood count dropped very low, and I ran fevers. I had to go back into the hospital two extra times to deal with these infections. I also had mouth sores and brushed my teeth with a sponge. My veins collapsed, and I had a port-a-cath put in. I was nauseous all the time, though I only got sick once due to the anti-nausea medicine I took. I lost 17 pounds. I could not sleep. I took two Ambien (sleeping pills), two Percocet and a muscle relaxer to knock myself out. I felt like I had the flu for three months.

Dr. Meldrum told me these 100 days would be the hardest of my life. And she was right.

The chemo to my eye was very painful and took all my strength away. But I refused to give in to it. I refused to give up. And once I decided to fight, I knew I would win. Even when I felt my worst, I made myself get out of bed. Even if I could only sit in a chair, I did. The next day, in my house, I walked from my chair to the kitchen and back. As soon as I could, I went outside and walked to my mailbox at the end of my driveway. Soon, I pushed myself to walk to the end of my street and back. I told me wife, if I didn’t come back soon, to come and find me. But I always made it back.

After the three chemo treatments to the eye, the tumor had shrunk from the size of a golf ball to the size of a marble. Now it had to come out—and the eye, as well. Also, the eyelid, tissue and some bone surrounding the area had to be removed.

The operation was to be on Nov. 12, 1999. After they wheeled me into the operating room, they had trouble getting the tube down my throat. They tried for almost two hours, then cancelled the operation for that day.

A throat specialist was called in; they were worried about polyps or a growth in my throat. The specialist put a scope up my nose, which was very unpleasant, and said there was nothing there. I was having problems opening my mouth wide enough.

They rescheduled the operation for Nov. 18. A special anesthesiologist who deals with problem anesthetizations was called in, and I was groggy but awake when they inserted the tube.

There were no problems this time. They started the operation at 6 p.m., and it lasted four hours. A nerve in my cheek had to be cut to get to the eye; the right side of my face now is always numb.

Due to overcrowding at the hospital, I never got a room. I stayed in recovery all night and went home at 8 a.m. the next morning.The whole side of my face was covered in bandages, but it felt great to be home. I accepted the pain, which was pretty intense. I recovered for six weeks, and my family had a good Christmas.

In January 2000, I started six weeks of radiation and one chemo treatment per week. The chemo was a much lower dose that I’d had before so that I didn’t get an infection. I was constantly tired from the radiation—but the end was in sight.

I finished the radiation and the chemo at the end of February. I took eight weeks to recover and had an eye made. I went to Dallas to get a facial prosthesis. I had been scheduled to receive four-to-six more rounds of chemo, but the doctors agreed I had already had my limit, so this was cancelled.

I am now cancer-free and living life to its fullest. During those first 100 days of chemo, some good friends of ours took us to their mountain house for a weekend. I couldn’t do anything—play golf, hike or ride a bike—but I sat on a bench by the golf course and just relaxed. My kids had a great time. I promised my wife that, if I survived the operations and the chemo, I would buy a lot for us.We recently bought our lot in the mountains and hope to build a house next year.

My Dad saved my life. If I had not returned to New Jersey for his funeral, my eye problem would have gone undetected. I had two or three bad days, then said, Let’s fight. My wife, Maria, was the one who pushed me. She was always there for me. My children—Joey, 12, and Laura, 8—had a hard time seeing their athletic dad sick, weak, bald and nauseous. Laura was afraid of the hospital, and seeing me wearing a mask frightened her. She wouldn’t come visit at the hospital but called me often, up to six times one day.

My brother, John, was devastated to see his younger brother fighting cancer. Our mother died of breast cancer in 1978 and our father of prostate cancer in 1999. John flew down from New Jersey for every operation. My mother-in-law flew down every month so my wife could stay with me in the hospital.

My employer, Billings Freight Systems, paid me every week for the whole year I was out of work; I was supposed to return to work in September 2000, but I felt good and returned early on May 1. Our friends and neighbors were wonderful. They cooked dinner for us twice a week. They watched our kids for us and took them out to dinner or a movie when we couldn’t. Now I try to help other cancer patients by talking with them and giving them hope.

We are now back to our normal routine. Our family life is back to normal.

I am very proud of myself, because when you get cancer, you get a choice: live or die. I decided to live.


Back to Emory Report Jan. 8, 2001