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Survivor Family Finishes Fight Against Cancer

The Cardella Family of Kenilworth Volunteers with Relay For Life to Benefit

(Kenilworth, NJ – May 2015) – According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1.6 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year. The five-year survival rate for all cancers has risen to 68 percent, and there are an estimated 14 million Americans alive today who have been diagnosed with the disease. For The Cardella Family of Kenilworth, the statistics became personal when they began their collective journey into “cancer survivorship” nearly 18 years ago.

In October of 1997, Lena Cardella was shocked when she received her diagnoses of breast cancer at the age of 57. She had always lived a healthy lifestyle and never smoked. Lena, known for being strong and emotionally centered, found the news extremely difficult to accept. She refused to show her family the depth of how frightened she was.

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Her doctors recommended course of treatment involved surgery followed by radiation therapy, which is typically prescribed for 5 days a week. This presented a major logistic problem for the family. Because her husband, Joseph, worked full time, Lena had no way to get to treatment every day. Without transportation to St. Barnabas Medical Center, Lena would be unable to receive the lifesaving radiation that was necessary for her to beat the cancer. In desperation, Lena turned to her church, which she was deeply involved with, and asked for help. She was seeking emotional support, but also asked if a member of their congregation would be available to give her a ride to treatment one day a week. The church never responded, leaving Lena adrift. One of her daughters suggested she call the American Cancer Society. Figuring she had nothing to lose, she picked up the phone and made the call that forever changed her life.

She was immediately connected to an ACS trained volunteer who was kind, patient, and knowledgeable. They set her up with the “Road To Recovery” program to take care of her transportation needs. Road To Recovery provides rides to and from treatment for people with cancer who do not have transportation or are unable to drive themselves. ACS Volunteer drivers donate their time so that patients can receive the life-saving treatments they need.

Lena fondly remembers the ACS volunteers who came to her aid.  “They were wonderful. They made me feel I wasn’t alone.” They not only drove her to St. Barnabas each week, but stayed and listened to her, giving her the emotional support she so badly needed during this most difficult time.  She says “American Cancer Society volunteers care and understand how we feel physically and mentally. It’s like always having an angel on our side.”

Lena completed her treatment, and despite some lingering side effects, she is pretty much “back to normal.”

Two years after Lena’s battle with cancer began, her 60 year old husband Joseph was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Again, the family was thrown into the cycle of fear, uncertainty, and anger: which is typical for those presented with a cancer diagnosis. 

Fortunately, by 1999, Lena had completed her treatment and was able to accompany Joseph to Memorial Sloan Kettering NYC for ongoing treatment. Lena spent the next 4 years as Joseph’s caregiver. She was there for him every step of the way, and supported him throughout his cancer journey.

With Lena’s and the family’s encouragement, Joseph - a lifelong smoker - quit smoking for good. His medical team was successful and he’s been cancer free since 2003. He’s regained his health and his strength, but carries a constant reminder of the disease. Sixteen years after diagnosis, he still has a benign mass in his neck that remains stable. He continues to watch it carefully.

In 2007, four years after the couple is deemed “cancer free”, Joseph elects to have knee replacement surgery. During what should have been a short stay in the hospital, he contracted MRSA.  Joseph was then forced to spend an additional 4 months at inpatient rehab to regain his mobility.

Meanwhile, during Joseph’s inpatient convalescence from MRSA, Lena is stunned to find that 10 years after her initial diagnosis, her cancer has returned. This time, she moves quickly and opts to treat the recurrence aggressively by having a mastectomy. The family unit stays strong through the emotional and logistic nightmare of having two of their own go through lifesaving medical treatment simultaneously in separate hospitals in different parts of the state.

To make matters worse, in 2009, two years after Lena’s recurrence, the family received yet more devastating news. Their middle daughter, 42 year old Cathy Cardella-Bonett was also diagnosed with breast cancer. After all this family had already endured, Cathy was afraid to tell her parents. Lena, being the pillar of strength that she’d always been told her daughter “I’m fine. You’re going to be fine too.” Cathy’s 8 month treatment regimen included a lumpectomy, followed by months of chemotherapy and radiation.

While Cathy was battling cancer, an ACS volunteer came to her during treatment and told her about the Look Good Feel Better Program. This free program addresses the needs of patients dealing with appearance related side-effects such as hair loss and changes to the skin. Licensed beauty and aesthetician professionals are trained and certified for the program and volunteer their time and services. ACS Look Good Feel Better guides patients on ways to use clothing to camouflage areas of concern during treatment and teaches beauty techniques utilizing wigs, head covers, make-up and alternatives to skin and nail care. Like the other members of her family, Cathy persevered and is now a healthy 5 year cancer survivor.

Cathy says the family got through these years of turbulence by “trusting in a source other than yourself. We have an amazing love army: God, family, neighbors, co-workers, and the American Cancer Society”. Because of the invaluable support the Cardella family received from ACS when times were tough, Lena and her family decided to “give back” in 1998 by volunteering for their local Relay For Life event. Lena explains “We are blessed to have a place and people that we can go to anytime for all kinds of (cancer) support. This is why I will be a volunteer for ACS for the rest of my life”.

Relay For Life is a community event where teams and individuals camp outdoors and take turns walking or running around a track, relay style. Each team has at least one participant on the track at all times during the twelve hour event. Teams and individuals collect donations in the months leading up to the Kenilworth Relay on June 13. Four million people participated in more than 6,000 events worldwide last year. Donations collected support patient services, cancer prevention and education, advocacy, but most importantly, contributions fund groundbreaking cancer research which may someday eradicate cancer completely.

As members of the top fundraising team, Team DOMINOE, (standing for “Don’t Overlook Mamograms It’s Necessary Once Every year”) with the 2015 Kenilworth event, The Cardella family’s favorite mode of fundraising is by collecting Luminaria donations. Lena alone usually receives orders for 200 – 300 per year. Every candle has the name of an individual who has been diagnosed with cancer. Luminarias are dedicated in honor of a survivor, or in memory of someone who lost their battle. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of these candles are lit at the Relay event at nightfall.

In addition to fundraising, The Cardellas have been instrumental in raising awareness throughout the community by speaking publically about their collective struggle and how they managed to pull through. They have turned what could have been a deadly experience into something positive. 

Joseph says “because of funding toward research and cancer education, things are way better than they were. Doctors communicate with patients and family members way more effectively now than before. Education is a very powerful tool in fighting the disease. Being told you have cancer used to be a death sentence.” He goes on to say, “Talking about it is the most important weapon we have. Awareness is key to early detection and survival.”

The “survivor story” of Lena, Joseph and Cathy has a happy ending. Lena and Joseph are now 75 years of age, and Cathy is 47. The entire family is cancer-free. For now, they have “finished the fight” on a personal level – but continue to fight back for others who may be diagnosed in the future. Since Lena’s diagnosis in 1997, the five year cancer survival rate has increased to 68% - a steady climb of 5%, which is significant to any individual who is face-to-face with this disease. The decrease in mortality rate is due in part to medical advancements and better treatment options, discovered by research funded by donations to The American Cancer Society.

The family along with local cancer survivors and their caregivers will take the celebratory first lap at the annual American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Kenilworth event on Saturday, June 13, 2015, at David Brearley High School, 401 Monroe Avenue, Kenilworth, NJ. The Survivor Celebration dinner starts at 5:00 pm immediately followed by the Survivor Celebration which will start at 6:30 pm.  Anyone who has ever been affected by cancer may participate. The Survivors kickoff the event by taking the opening lap, followed by a Caregiver Lap. As the survivors walk, community members will cheer them on in a demonstration of support and celebration.  Then, all other participants take to the track as the event gets under way. An estimated 500 participants from Kenilworth and surrounding towns are expected to take part in the event.

Lena Cardella is a firm believer when it comes to giving back. “It’s a great feeling. When we help the American Cancer Society, we are actually helping ourselves, because of what they give us in return.”

Relay For Life registration is open to anyone who wants to make a difference in the fight against cancer. For more information about Relay For Life, visit www.relayforlife.org/kenilworthnj or contact Christina Andrascik - American Cancer Society at email: christina.andrascik@cancer.org or 973-232-2573.

 

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