Some might argue that God has more pressing concerns than arranging to topple Glen Pichichero off his bicycle on his ride home from Taco Tuesday at The Cabana in Long Beach.
But that’s not the way Pichichero sees it.
That August night in 2009, after the Long Beach dentist hit a curb, went flying over his handlebars, and did what he calls a “face plant” on the sidewalk, he needed stitches. Which meant a trip to the emergency room of South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, where doctors ordered a CT scan to check for a concussion.
Instead, they discovered a tumor between his skull and his brain.
Pichichero was 50; the youngest of his four children was only 5. “If I didn’t have that accident and I didn’t end up in the emergency room, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today,” says Pichichero, now 58, who pronounces his last name Pih-KICK-a-row. If not for the CT scan, the tumor could have continued to grow undetected, eventually causing a massive stroke and possibly death.
Pichichero chronicles his medical journey in a self-published paperback book, “God Made Me Fall,” a title that reflects his trust in God’s path for him. “He gave me cancer,” Pichichero says. “But fortunately for me, he gave me treatable cancer. I feel like he’s given me the opportunity to share a message, which is you can survive this if you’re strong and you fight. We can’t win all the battles, but we can prolong the war.”
RIDE OF HIS LIFE
That bicycle accident started Pichichero on the ride of his life — fighting a cancer that, over the past eight years, has required eight surgeries, six weeks of radiation and two reconstructions of his skull. His treatments have left him with diminished fine motor skills, eyes that tire quickly and daily headaches that forced him to give up his dental practice. He now relies on disability payments and savings.
But Pichichero says he refuses to be defeated. His book is intended to be a positive story, with details about how he’s chosen to live his life in between hospital visits: taking a “bucket list” trip to ski in the Alps of northern Italy, continuing to run on the Long Beach boardwalk and trying to find romance. His book sells on Amazon.com for $24.99, more expensive than most paperbacks, because of dozens of color photos — including some graphic ones of Pichichero’s skull reconstruction and other procedures.
Pichichero says he didn’t write the book to make money — it cost him hundreds to put together. “I started writing it with the mindset that this can help others, that this can inspire others, that this can give others hope,” says Pichichero, who makes 95 cents on each book sold.
Writing about their chronic physical or mental illness can give patients a sense of empowerment over the disease, says psychiatrist Brian Keefe, medical director of Zucker Hillside Hospital, a behavioral health center in Queens. Presenting their narrative makes them “not a victim of some random tragedy but a character in a story.”
Pichichero recently hosted a book signing at the Long Beach Library, wearing his ever-present cap to cover the scars. “If I take my hat off, you can actually see all the screw points in my head,” he told the crowd of about 30 people.
For 90 minutes, Pichichero read from his book and explained that his disease is thought to be a skin cancer that penetrated his scalp — he’s had more than 40 basal or squamous cell carcinomas removed, primarily from his face, head and neck. He threw in jokes about how the subway escalator up to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan is so long “you think you’re going to Heaven” and regaled attendees with anecdotes about his plastic surgeon wearing “lucky socks” on the day of Pichichero’s 17-hour surgery to take a muscle from his back and transplant it to his head to protect his skull.
He was asked who was his support system — “my mom and my brother” — how he’s changed spiritually — “I don’t know if I’m a better person, but I’m a different person” — and how he keeps worry in check — “What gives me the drive and gives me the motivation to keep going is my children.” Pichichero has been divorced twice; the middle two of his four sons have special needs.
People who attended the reading say they were moved by Pichichero.
“His positive attitude is infectious,” says Andrew Gutschneider, 40, of Long Beach, who is Pichichero’s financial adviser. “His day-in, day-out struggle, he’s unbelievable.”
Rosemary Leonetti, 60, also of Long Beach, was one of Pichichero’s patients for years. “I saw him go through all of this and try to keep his practice alive,” Leonetti says. “How positive he was about everything that happened to him even though he had so many setbacks along the way.”
He was so open, she says, always willing to have a conversation about his experiences. “I said, ‘If I ever get sick like that I want to be like him.’ A couple of years later I got cancer myself,” says Leonetti, who had a diagnosis of lymphoma. “He was my inspiration of how to deal with the disease in a positive way.”
Pichichero wasn’t as positive at his initial diagnosis. In the beginning, the doctors monitored the tumor. His first surgery was in December 2009 at Sloan Kettering, where doctors gave him the possible outcomes of the operation: In the extreme, he could die on the operating table; there was a small chance he could be partly paralyzed; he might not be able to work again.
He came through it, but developed a hole in his scalp where the skin didn’t heal. His most intense surgery was in 2012, the 17-hour “lucky socks” marathon.
Pichichero tried to keep working, but side effects from his surgeries and treatments made it impossible. “I realized it was too much for me,” he says.
Running was one thing he could hold on to. “I’ve been running the boardwalk for 40 years,” he says. He grew up attending Long Beach Catholic schools, commuted to St. John’s University in Queens and attended dental school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He purchased his house in 1986 and lives there with one of his sons and his dog, Luna, a German shepherd-American bulldog mix.
“Glen is incredibly resilient,” says Dr. Evan Matros, associate professor of surgery at Sloan Kettering and Pichichero’s “lucky socks” plastic surgeon. He says Pichichero’s book could help other cancer patients. “Reading about someone else’s personal experience can ease the course of treatment and help people understand what’s going on and what to expect. Not everyone is going to identify with Glen’s journey, but for those who do, it can be very important.”
The tome also gets a thumb’s up from Pichichero’s youngest son, Luke, now 13. “I think it’s really cool,” he says. “I really like to read, and to think my dad is writing books . . . it’s pretty awesome.”
‘IT JUST FLOWED’
Pichichero kept a detailed medical journal since his tumor diagnosis, with dates, appointments, prognosis and photographs of his procedures and outcomes. “I didn’t start out taking all this data and photos in anticipation of writing a book. I’m a dentist, not an author,” he says. But he jokes that while some authors complain of writer’s block, “It just flowed,” he says.
Pichichero’s primary care physician, Dr. John Bedell of South Island Medical in Island Park, says Pichichero can inspire others to do everything possible to heal. “Glen takes very good care of himself,” by monitoring his diet and continuing to exercise, Bedell says.
Since the publication, Pichichero’s journey continues — doctors are keeping tabs on a what could be a new tumor they recently discovered in his brain. In the best-case scenario, the mass could be dead tissue caused by his radiation treatments. “Now I just have to deal with this big cloud over my head that I still potentially have brain cancer,” Pichichero says.
But he’s dealing with that the way he’s dealt with each development in his odyssey. He’s thinking of writing a “prequel” — a memoir of his earlier days, before God made him fall.