Returning to the scene of a painful episode in his life has become an annual ritual for Robert Lentz of Bay Shore.
"It's very good to come back here," Lentz said, standing under a white canvas tent where an estimated 2,000 cancer survivors gathered Saturday at North Shore-LIJ Health System's Monter Cancer Center in Lake Success. "I see the people who worked very hard to keep me here on earth."
The annual Don Monti Cancer Survivors Day event was an opportunity for former patients and their families to reunite and celebrate with dancing and hugs and to listen to New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich recount his battle with the disease.See alsoFind out how your hospital rankssee alsoFind top docsMore coverageMore Long Island health
"It changed me," said Lentz, who was joined by his wife, daughter and granddaughter. "I'm more of a compassionate person."
Lentz, 55, used to keep his hair short but now sports a ponytail, eight years after he completed two years of chemotherapy to treat leukemia. A June 15 follow-up visit at the hospital falls on the day he turns 56.
"What better place to celebrate my birthday," Lentz said.
The health system honored Caroline Monti Saladino, president of the Don Monti Memorial Research Foundation, which raises money for cancer research, medical education and treatment. Saladino said advances in medicine mean people can live longer than was possible when her brother Don, after whom the foundation is named, died from cancer 43 years ago.
"It's a whole different world now," Saladino said before the event. "When you go in the tent and see over 2,000 survivors, you'll realize where we've come, from 1972 to now."
Herzlich told the audience that doctors told him the bone cancer that had taken hold in his leg was the end of his football career. After feeling sorry for himself, the college athlete decided he was going to play again; and his father said to him, "Let's do this."
"When you're diagnosed, you feel isolated; that thing you loved had been ripped away . . . you lose an identity," he said. "When someone says 'Let's do this,' they have just created a bond. They have created a team. No longer do you feel isolated -- you're fighting with someone else."
His cancer treatment ended, he played again and was drafted by the Giants. After the team won the Super Bowl in 2012, his father hugged him and said, "We did it."