Local doctor chooses life through two diagnoses

Editor’s Note: The American Cancer Society Relay For Life movement is the world’s largest support group for survivors. Communities across the country come together every year to hold more than 5,200 Relay For Life events in celebration of those continuing to fight and those who have won. In honor of Mifflin-Juniata’s 20th Annual Relay For Life, local survivors are reaching out to the community with their own stories. Dr. John J. Fuoco, of Lewistown, shares his survivor story:

“I’ve been diagnosed with cancer twice in my life. I had a Wilms tumor at age 5. Wilms tumors are childhood kidney cancers. I had the kidney removed and received radiation therapy at age 5, which is now 52 years ago.

“I remember very little of the cancer treatment I received as a child, other than how traumatic the scarring and blistering was from the radiation treatments. I carried those scars my whole life. I also remember how upset my family was over the whole ordeal, especially my mother, who was very aware that my chances of survival back then were estimated at 20 percent. As a 5-year-old, I was sheltered from the gravity of my situation and only came to realize how close to death I came many years later.

“The second time, I was diagnosed in 2011. I’d had a lengthy series of chest colds and a cough that just wouldn’t go away. Tests, tests and more tests showed something rotten in my right lung. Biopsies did not show cancer, but the right lower lobe had to come out. So I underwent an open thoracotomy to remove that half of my lung. To visualize an open thoracotomy, think of a massive shark bite flipping open one half of your chest just under the armpit. It was ugly and nasty. I could not bring myself to look at that shark-bite incision for many days after.

“What they found inside was worse than we thought. There was cancer, lung cancer. I remember coming out of the fog of anesthesia, lying flat in the recovery room, and my surgeon delivering that news to me. One single tear wiggled out of my left eye and made its ways across my temple. This was bad news. Lung cancer is not a ‘good cancer’ to get. The cancer had developed from the radiation treatment I received as a child all those years ago.

“I spent 11 days in the hospital, longer than planned. Though my care was excellent, I had side effects from the pain medicines and was in pain and terribly nauseated most of the time. When released, I still had a chest tube, which is nothing more than a garden hose pinched between the ribs, to drain leaking fluid and air. By that time, my cancer had been staged and it was determined that I needed chemotherapy once I was over the surgery.

“Unfortunately, the cancer spread to the other lung in 2012 and I had to go back on chemotherapy, which had so far been successful in keeping it down. I will stay on chemotherapy the rest of my life as long as it continues to keep the cancer in remission. I am not cancer free.

“Oddly enough, I don’t think I appreciated just how lucky I was until I developed my second deadly cancer in 2011. Then I realized that God had given me 50 good years between major cancers. I am very grateful for that. During that time, I grew up, pitched a perfect game in Little League, married and had three terrific children.

“I worked hard in school and fulfilled my life long dream of becoming a family doctor and providing care for those in need, just as I had been given good care by doctors and nurses when I was only 5. I come from an athletic family and evolved into an ultramarathon cyclist. In that realm, I’ve accomplished much, including record rides across the states of Vermont and Pennsylvania, as well as two completions on the famous Paris-Brest-Paris bike race.

“These days, I am no longer able to practice full-time or compete in the longer, harder ultramarathons. But I still work and I still ride my bike as much as I can. If there is one thing my fellow cancer survivors have shown me, it’s that life goes on after you’re diagnosed with cancer. I prefer to consider myself a person living with cancer and not a person who is dying of cancer.”