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Friends and Angels brightens lives of children being treated for cancer

Tracy Vicere honors her survival of childhood cancer through her foundation, which donates "survivorship" binders, cheery bedroom decorations and more to patients at Cohen Children's Medical Center.

Tracy Vicere, a two-time adolescent cancer survivor, works

Tracy Vicere, a two-time adolescent cancer survivor, works at her desk updating information  in Survivors Facing Forward, the notebook that all survivors can use to help them track their treatment. Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

It’s been 28 years since Tracy Vicere had her last radiation treatment for cancer. She remembers June 5, 1990, as well as she remembers her birthday.

Vicere, 45, is a special-education teacher at Woodward Parkway Elementary School in Farmingdale, where she once was a student. She celebrates her positive outcome by giving back to Cohen Children’s Medical Center, the hospital where she received lifesaving treatments.

“For the most part, I’m good, but there are those times it hits you,” she said. “I had three friends that passed away, and I always ask why. Why them and not me? I can’t change what happened, but this is one way to make me feel a little better.”

Vicere’s eighth annual fundraiser to benefit the hospital’s Division of Hematology-Oncology and Stem Cell Transplantation is coming up on Saturday, Oct. 20. Her Friends and Angels: The Tracy Vicere Foundation has donated more than $125,000 to programs that keep patients’ spirits up and help ease sometimes lengthy stays.

Donations range from cash for gift cards to a flat-screen TV, Xbox games, controllers and ear buds to fun bedding that can help ease a monthlong stay after a bone-marrow transplant. The foundation also donates toiletry gift bags, cooler bags to help patients transport medication, vein finders to help minimize pain and discomfort for patients and an unlikely hit — welcome binders for those in the Survivors Facing Forward program to help them track all the test results, blood work, scans and miscellaneous medical records they will need moving through their lives. The hospital said hundreds of its pediatric patients have been helped by the foundation.

Vicere brought her teacher’s organization skills to her need for readily accessible and reliable information when she developed the binder.

“There’s a lot that patients have to navigate as a cancer survivor,” said Theresa Mayr, nurse coordinator for the Survivors Facing Forward clinic, where Vicere was one of its first patients when it started 10 years ago. The clinic treats and follows patients starting three years from the completion of their treatment. Its patients range in age from 5 to 62. “They go nowhere without this binder,” Mayr said. “Ten years ago we gave out folders and verbal information, and then we saw how she organized all her information in a binder.” It was an idea the program happily adopted.

It’s an example of how Vicere understands what the patients are going through, Mayr said. “She thinks of how it makes others feel. She’s walked the path and wants to give back in so many ways.”

Vicere is generous with her time and will talk with patients who are having a hard time and who, at a certain stage, feel isolated and alone, Mayr said. “Tracy’s willing to be a pair of ears, to listen. That means a lot to older patients who had cancer as a child or teen. You need that sounding board.”

: “We are the first group that made it through treatment,” Vicere said. “The treatment today is very different because of the side effects.” As she’s gotten older, her attitude has shifted. In her 20s, she got on with her life and didn’t think too much about being a cancer survivor, she said. In her mid-30s, Vicere said, it registered how fortunate she was, and she acted on a resolution to do something to help kids and families at the hospital. Her foundation got its 501(c)(3) status in September 2011. And something like the recent sixth annual Les Nelkin Pediatric Cancer Survivors’ Day walk at Jones Beach continues to put everything in perspective. “You realize you stress over things that shouldn’t be stressed over,” she said.

Rosie Van Nostrand, 44, of Massapequa Park, who’s known Vicere since their first day at Wagner College in 1991, is a foundation board member and its communications director. Vicere has a laserlike focus on the needs of patients in those units where she once was a patient, Van Nostrand said. “She wants to make their stay comfortable and to improve the lives of kids staying in those wards. It’s where her and her sister were cured.”

Vicere was diagnosed with two different types of cancer  — Stage 3A Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma Stage 1A — in June 1989. Her diagnosis came just months after her sister, Amy Vicere, then 14, went into remission in November 1988 after treatment for Stage 2A Hodgkin lymphoma. Now living in Smithtown, Amy Vicere Hirsch, 43, is married, has two children ages 11 and 7, and runs Precision Pilates and Wellness. She will mark her 30-year anniversary of being cancer-free on Nov. 26.

Tracy Vicere’s cancer was spotted early when the doctor found a lump on her neck during a preoperative check to remove a cyst she developed after a hard bump on a ride when the family went to Disney World. The trip was through the Make-A-Wish Foundation to celebrate Amy Vicere’s successful treatment.

“If you think about it, Amy’s Make-A-Wish trip saved Tracy’s life,” said Carol Vicere, the girls’ mother. “Neither girl had symptoms. The doctor found the lump on Tracy’s neck early on.”

The foundation helps Tracy continue her healing process, said Carol Vicere, 70, of North Port, Florida, where she and her husband, Joe Vicere, 75, have lived for 18 years. “The treatment we got at that hospital? This is our way of giving back.”

She and Tracy work as a team to see what items the foundation can help with, Carol Vicere said. “I have an idea of what’s needed to get through every day. If we can do something to make it easier as a parent, it’s what we try to do. It’s lonely, you’re scared for your child, you try to keep them going. It’s a series of long, long days.” Carol Vicere is vice president on the foundation’s board of directors and makes the surgical dolls the units use to show children details of their upcoming procedures. “I sew the dolls and my husband stuffs them,” she said. “I flew to New York with a suitcase of dolls one time.”

“Surviving cancer — let me say, being cured is not the end of cancer, it stays with you your whole life,” Carol Vicere said, referring to ongoing medical issues stemming from the treatments as well as the guilt survivors sometimes feel. “Thank goodness they’ve gotten so much better with the treatment,” Carol Vicere said. The speakers planned for this year’s fundraiser include the three children of Tracy’s grade-school buddy and lifelong friend Brian Ihm, 44, of Lindenhurst, who was guest speaker at her first fundraiser.

His daughter, Gwendolyn, now 13, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)  when she was 2 months old, underwent treatment and then received a bone-marrow transplant at age 2½. ALL is when a bone marrow cell develops errors in its DNA. The harsh chemo and radiation treatments saved Gwendolyn’s life, but left her with secondary health issues, including a damaged heart for which she received a heart transplant in 2017, Ihm said. “We know how lucky we are, and Tracy understands. She and Gwen are very close and they text back and forth,” Ihm said. Gwen and his other two children, Elizabeth, 15, and Sean, 11, also will be guest speakers.

It’s inevitable to wonder why your child was cured while other families you met during treatment weren’t so lucky, Carol Vicere said. “It’s hard. You wonder why your child made it, and their child didn’t. Is it for this reason, right now? Was it meant to be that Tracy do this?”

Annual fundraiser

Friends and Angels: The Tracy Vicere Foundation’s 8th annual fundraiser is 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, at Mulchahy’s, 3232 Railroad Ave., Wantagh, with cover band The Switch. Tickets are $65, $75 at the door, and can be purchased online at tracyvicerefoundation.org/annual-fundraiser.html. Price includes food and an open bar. Proceeds benefit the hematology-oncology and bone marrow units at the Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park.

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