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John DiDomenico with hematologist oncologist Seth Cohen, M.D., medical
director of Oncology Clinical Research and Outpatient Infusion for the
Leon Hess Cancer Center at Monmouth Medical Center.
According to Pancreatic Cancer Action, more than 50 percent of patients
have never heard of pancreatic cancer before their own diagnosis and half
the population cannot name a single symptom of pancreatic cancer. Monmouth
Medical Center, a leader in cancer care, recognizes November as Pancreatic
Cancer Awareness Month and urges all to know the symptoms and risks.
When John DiDomenico was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer two
years ago, he knew the odds were against him: this disease is one of the
deadliest types of cancer.
But thanks to a very rigorous regimen of chemotherapy and what he sees
as the unique abilities of his Monmouth Medical Center oncologist, the
63-year-old Oceanport resident today considers himself a “1 per-center”
– among the small group of people still alive more than two years
after an inoperable pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Today, he is making it
his vocation to spread the message that a diagnosis of late-stage pancreatic
cancer is not necessarily a death sentence.
“It’s my mission to provide hope to others with this disease
that are face to face with this very bleak prognosis,” John said,
noting that the typical survival for stage IV pancreatic cancer is six
months. He is also looking to spread the word that it isn’t necessary
to travel to New York City or other far-off destinations for the very
best cancer care (there is no special sauce). He credits his remarkable
survival to the care he receives from his hematologist oncologist Seth
Cohen, M.D., medical director of Oncology Clinical Research and Outpatient
Infusion for the Leon Hess Cancer Center at Monmouth, as well as the hospital’s
staff of oncology nurses at the Monmouth Vantage Point infusion center, or
Angels, as he calls them.
Currently, Dr. Cohen is a principal investigator of numerous clinical trials
of various tumor types at Monmouth Medical Center.
“Seth utilizes a scientific approach, along with a heavy measure
of the human touch,” John says. “My goal is to give people
who have a similar diagnosis hope that survival is an option. Dr. Cohen
has the ability to stand toe to toe with anyone treating pancreatic cancer
– I don’t know that there’s another hospital or management
group as focused on it, and I really want to spread the word that there
is someone right here in our community with an attention and feel for
the management of pancreatic cancer. Hope is there for me, and it can
be for others as well.”
Noting that he was originally referred to Dr. Cohen by his primary care
physician, Jeffrey Felzenberg, M.D., for hematology care after suffering
a pulmonary embolism in 2011, John said a Thanksgiving 2014 visit to Monmouth’s
Emergency Department for very sharp pain in his lower right back revealed
the dreaded diagnosis of a pancreatic tumor. After seeking opinions in
New York at Memorial Sloan Kettering and Winthrop Hospital, he decided
to come back to Monmouth and Dr. Cohen.
“I felt very comfortable with Seth,” he said. “Yes, pancreatic
cancer is deadly, but he is able to manage a very ferocious disease –
and his success level is real. I want others to know that there is hope
– there is someone right here in our community – no need to
go to Sloan or MD Anderson – who is as proficient as anyone treating
pancreatic cancer. There is a lot of hope based on results created here,
and I want to offer myself as an example of what can be done.”
John’s wife, Annie, concurred – adding that at their initial
visit with Dr. Cohen, he never said anything about having six months to live.
“He said we are not going to talk about life expectancy and urged
us not to go on line and look at the statistics,” she said. “Seth
has always been John’s personal cheerleader — there were days
where he would feel defeated, but if he had a visit with him, he would
leave feeling so uplifted.”
It is estimated that 41,780 deaths - 21,450 men and 20,330 women - from
pancreatic cancer will occur this year. It is a disease that is often
difficult to diagnose because there are no specific, cost-effective screening
tests that can easily and reliably find early-stage pancreatic cancer
in people who have no symptoms. This means it is often not found until
it is stage IV, when the cancer can no longer be removed with surgery
and has spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body.
John is fighting hard against this aggressive disease that has seen him
admitted to Monmouth’s ICU three times, and in addition to Dr. Cohen,
points to the hospital’s outstanding nursing care and the additional
medical care he has received from Dr. Felzenberg. Additionally, Monmouth
Medical Center gastroenterologist Ben Terrany, M.D., treated him for esophageal
varices - enlarged veins in the esophagus that break open and bleed. Bleeding
must be controlled quickly to prevent shock and death, and John’s
treatment was particularly difficult due to his advanced illness.
“Dr. Terrany did a great job, it was very difficult to get the varices,
and he succeeded,” he says.
John also points to the important role genetic counseling plays in a cancer
diagnosis such as his, noting that it is crucial not only to identify
family history, but also as a demonstration that Monmouth Medical Center
is looking to the future in immunotherapy to remedy cancer.
John met with Monmouth’s licensed/ board-certified genetic counselor,
Sherry Grumet, MA,
MS, LCGC, who guided him through this process and discussed the results
of these tests.
“Cancers are generally treated based on where they have occurred
in the body, and we are now beginning to understand the biology of cancer
better by characterizing the underlying genetic mutations that cause the
cancer to grow and prosper,” she says. “This allows for potentially
more effective treatments that target genetic mutations that are important
for the cancer’s survival. John’s cancer was sent for this
‘genetic profiling’ and several potential research-based treatments
were identified. Also, due to his family history of colon and pancreatic
cancer, genetic testing for hereditary genetic mutations was also completed
to help assess risk to family members.”
In addition, John credits the holistic lifestyle he maintained before his illness.
“I may have come to this illness in better condition than most,”
he says, noting that he holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and four years
of Muay Thai and is a vegetarian who regularly meditates along with a
robust supplement routine, and an unlimited prescription of faith.
The treatment regimen, 53 hours in a row of Folfirinox, a combination of
three chemotherapy drugs (5-FU/leucovorin, irinotecan,and oxaliplatin),
administered first every two weeks and now every three weeks, is very
tough, but he said the results have been impressive.
“When I initially saw Seth my tumor markers (CA 19-9) were 125,000
- 35 is normal, and currently my marker is at 25! He has literally taken
me out of the jaws of death,” John says. “Today all of my
tumors have either shrunk or disappeared, so I am resigned to this ‘waterboarding’
every three weeks. My body is responding very well, but there is also
psychological component that is as difficult as the physical one, and
I make sure to I take care of myself psychologically as well.”
A former entrepreneur, John says that staying alive is now his full time
deal. And while the treatment he undergoes is very difficult and caustic,
he wants to share the message that there is real talent do deal with advanced
pancreatic cancer at Monmouth Medical Center.
“They have the ability here to maintain life in the hopes of finding
a cure, or a breakthrough treatment,” he says. “If I can give
even one person hope, I feel like what I am doing is worth it - to let
people know, if you get through one more month, maybe that’s the
month a breakthrough drug will be found.
John emphasizes that because the message surrounding pancreatic cancer
is so negative, the psychological component and family advocacy are essential
to keeping people with pancreatic cancer alive. John reminds us that “our
vigilance is rooted in our inextinguishable Hope.”
“I have a great family who is so supportive of me,” he says,
pointing to his family, which includes: Annie, his wife of 42 years; 33-year-old
expecting again daughter Gabriella, a speech pathologist, and 3-year-old
granddaughter Lucia Susanna, John’s joy, and her husband Tim, a
sales executive; 29-year-old son John, a Chiropractor, who regularly manages
the physical trauma from the cancer and chemotherapy and his Master of
Divinity girlfriend Cora; and his youngest a 20-year-old son Timeo, a
Monmouth University Music Industry major; “It is so much easier
on them as well as me to have this treatment close to home. They suffer
also. Quality moments spent with them are priceless.”
“Dr. Cohen knows how to ground the psychological with the physical
— cancer patients today are looking for someone with a deeper understanding
of what science and technology have always brought to the human condition
- and there is someone right here who truly understands this,” he adds.
In addition to raising hope, John is eager to use his story to raise awareness
of the need for data sharing and therefore fund-raising for the small
group of patients surviving with advanced pancreatic cancer, and funding
for research into a cure.
“There are not a lot of solutions, and finding solutions will only
come through a sharper attention, and money,” he says. “I
will do anything I can to help raise awareness - I want charitable value
to come from this.”
For more information about cancer care and the services available at The
Leon Hess Cancer Center at Monmouth Medical Center, call 732.923.6575.