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.
Id 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
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 hadAdenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC)is very
rare. There was little written on it. I had ACC of the lacrimal (tear
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. Shed
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.
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 nurses 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 didnt 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 outand
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
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 Id had before so
that I didnt get an infection. I was constantly tired from the radiationbut
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
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 couldnt do anythingplay golf, hike
or ride a bikebut 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, Lets fight. My wife, Maria, was the one who pushed me.
She was always there for me. My childrenJoey, 12, and Laura, 8had
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 wouldnt 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
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 couldnt.
Now I try to help other cancer patients by talking with them and giving
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.