MADISON, NJ - Tony Ottino is a cancer survivor. After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for sarcoma, a rare cancer, at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Tony’s oncologist recommended the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program.
At first, Tony didn’t want to do it—he had been through so much; but, he recognized that his doctors were right about everything regarding his cancer treatment, so he trusted them. Tony enrolled in the Madison Area YMCA’s LIVESTRONG at the YMCA. He says he’s grateful he did.
“LIVESTRONG can’t be publicized enough,” says Tony, a financial literacy teacher at Passaic Valley High School in Little Falls, NJ, and a college math instructor, who had retired from IBM in 2005 after a 25-year career.
The journey with cancer began in March 2017 when Tony received his diagnosis. “Cancer is a family thing—family support is so important,” says the father of three adult children—two sons and a daughter. Everyone did what they could to help out, pointing out that his wife of 39 years, Dawn, went with him for treatments and constantly took care of him. Tony notes the part of the marriage vow “In sickness and in health” with a slight shake of his head.
Tony says the treatments received and the care provided by the physicians and staff at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Manhattan and Basking Ridge locations still make him speechless. “They’re so personable. They don’t make you feel nervous. You can really talk to them,” he says. “Special people work there.”
To help him get from cancer diagnosis to defeating it, Tony broke the process down into phases. “In the first phase you’re kind of uncertain with what’s going on,” he says. After surgery and fighting infections, Tony received chemotherapy in the early summer of 2017, followed by radiation in the fall. The second phase was all about healing, managing medications and developing a plan to be weaned from them. After three months, he was feeling great and that’s when he started the third phase, LIVESTRONG at the YMCA in April 2018.
Tony says the support given by Joe Gonsalves, the Madison Area YMCA’s senior director of healthy living and aquatics who runs LIVESTRONG, and Chelsea Sacher, the health and wellness coordinator and also one of Tony’s LIVESTRONG coaches, was incredible. “Chelsea told me the program would be really helpful to me and she was right,” he says. Tony met with Chelsea and his other LIVESTRONG coaches Erin Long and Katie Worden two days a week for an hour during the 12-week program. The team helped him set goals for overall mobility and wellness. A major hurdle for Tony was to conquer standing up from a chair. He credits Chelsea for teaching him how to stand up properly.
“There were times that I didn’t want to make the drive,” says Tony, who made the 45-minute trip from his home in Little Falls. His son helped out by taking multiple test runs with Tony mapping out the most efficient way to the Y. “Fatigue was another big factor. LIVESTRONG really helped with that. Every day got a little bit easier. I was making progress. I started to feel better and have more energy. And everyone was always so welcoming and happy to see me—from the front desk staff to the coaches and trainers. Something new was introduced at every session—from my feet to the top of my head—there was something for every part of the body. LIVESTRONG exceeded my expectations. I felt good because my whole body felt good. It was an excellent experience,” he says.
In his efforts to pay it forward, Tony made his contact information available to patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering who might like to speak with someone who has gone through cancer. He also plans to become an advocate for the American Cancer Association and LIVESTRONG at the YMCA.
“Through it all, I learned that recovery is a slow process. You have to listen to your body and take baby steps. If you accept that, you make things easier on yourself,” says Tony, adding “Be bold, be strong, belong.” That was the tagline he saw on a recent Madison Area YMCA program guide. “I like that,” he says before pausing for a moment. “You can’t go wrong coming here.”