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Colon Cancer Survivor

Gaetano Boriello

Gaetano BorielloGaetano Boriello knew something wasn’t quite right. First there were periods of feeling light-headed. Then he felt woozy, like he was dehydrated and nearly about to faint. 

A University of Washington professor of Computer Science & Engineering for over 21 years, Gaetano works on the application of mobile technologies (cell phones, GPS, etc.) to problems in the developing world, focusing primarily on public health and transportation issues. He blamed his travel schedule for the way he felt, but went to see his doctor just in case. A quick blood test revealed that Gaetano was missing a third of his blood supply. “My doctor was wondering why I was even standing there. I should’ve been flat on my back,” he says.

Diagnosis

Already scheduled for a standard screening colonoscopy, Gaetano’s doctor had him go early to see if it would help tell them why he had lost so much blood. The answer: a large tumor in his colon.

“The next question was how big was it outside of the colon,” Gaetano says. “They had only seen the inside. And so there was a whole flurry of scheduling of additional tests. I had a CT scan appointment set up for two days later.”

There were also blood transfusions for the anemia since he had lost so much blood because of the tumor.
 
“When my wife and got home that evening, it was a pretty sobering experience,” Gaetano says. “A lot had happened in a short period of time. And that really wasn’t the whole story yet either, because a lot more was discovered in the next few days.”

Gaetano’s tumor had spread outside his colon. It was most certainly in his lymph nodes, and the situation became more complicated when a CT scan revealed tumors in his liver as well.

“Survival rates for this sort of thing are not terribly good,” he says.

The first thing the next morning, Gaetano sent an e-mail to the chair of surgery of UW Medicine, Mika Sinanan, MD, just to ask him for advice. “He had done surgery on a couple of my colleagues in the past and I had met him at other university activities. So I just asked for advice…what would you do, who would you talk to, what physician would you go to?”

Within 10 minutes Dr. Sinanan called Gaetano and scheduled him for surgery 72 hours later. “And then things really moved fast,” Gaetano says. 

Treatment

Gaetano had a major colon resection. About a third of his colon was removed. He spent about two weeks in the hospital recovering.

“I realized I endured surgery pretty well. I’d never been in a hospital before so that was a new experience,” Gaetano says.

He received chemotherapy treatment for the tumors that had metastasized to his liver under the care of medical oncologist Samuel Whiting, MD at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

“The first thing Dr. Whiting told me was don’t look on the web,” Gaetano says. “And I said, ‘too late for that; I already did;’ and he said forget what you saw. We do a lot better than that.”

Gaetano received aggressive chemotherapy treatment for a couple of months and then surgery for his liver tumors that had shrunk considerably. He spent about a week recovering and was back to work a week after that.

“I had no pain the entire time, after both surgeries. I actually didn’t take any of the pain medication that they sent me home with,” he says. “I felt like I was in good hands, that things were working pretty well.”

Treating Metastatic Disease

Gaetano’s cancer isn’t the kind that will be cured or go away, but it can be kept in remission. To do this, Gaetano continues to receive chemotherapy treatment and is “cautiously optimistic.”

“That first day it seemed huge,” he says. “You don’t know a lot about this world—there’s a lot to learn. But there are many lines of defense, and I’m just working through the first one right now. So I feel there’s a lot that can be done.”

Life is different with metastatic cancer. Maintenance therapy becomes a part of life—a new routine. “We deal with it on a weekly or daily basis as needed,” Gaetano says. “It’s different, has some annoying moments but, in the grand scheme of things, I can deal with it,” he says. “And I’m getting some reasonable results. That’s the nice thing about it. So I just keep going on to the next step, the next step, the next step.”

Best Advice

Gaetano received an immense amount of support from his family and friends. “I think that helped a lot psychologically,” he says. “There are a lot of people pulling for you.”

“I think it is important for people to understand that there’s hope. It’s not a death sentence. One of my favorite things I heard in all my treatment was actually from a nurse who was helping me with my chemo one day. She was asking about when I got diagnosed and what I had exactly…and she said, ‘You know, cancer’s the new diabetes,’ meaning, it’s becoming a manageable disease. It’s not what it used to be.”

Gaetano says he and his friends know of people who have had similar situations with a tough diagnosis and treatment that “wasn’t pretty. But they’re still here and still participating in life. And that’s what I’m hoping for. And that’s where I think you have to focus.”

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