Christina Vendetto’s cancer is 10 years in remission, but by the time the Lake Ronkonkoma resident turned 35, she had already battled colon cancer once and lung cancer twice.
Vendetto, now 45, pressed on with chemo and surgery after each diagnosis and her “light at the end of the tunnel” came when daughter Allison was born June 30, 2010 – under the Cancer zodiac sign.
Dozens of survivors like Vendetto shared stories of hope and perseverance Sunday at Stony Brook Cancer Center’s annual National Cancer Survivors Day celebration. Dennis Kelty, 71, of Holbrook, who fought prostate cancer in 2007 and bladder cancer in 2014, kicked off the event’s “parade of survivors” and had plenty of advice for fellow patients.
“One of the things I have gotten out of the support group is inspiration,” said Kelty, who is in remission but attends meetings to offer help to newcomers. “We laugh, we joke, we talk about how embarrassing things have become. You have to come to a mental state where you accept what is going on.”
He pressed those with new diagnoses to seek counsel and camaraderie through support groups. Acceptance is key, Kelty said, but it can be a struggle as survivors say their illness can at times feel completely random and unfair.
Vendetto was not a smoker when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Kim Tunstall of Brentwood was just days away from giving birth to her second child when her older daughter, Cianna, then 5, was diagnosed with a type of bone cancer in her right leg.
Cianna, now 7 and nearly a year in remission, missed all of first grade, cannot bend her knee and is likely to require multiple surgeries until she stops growing. Still, the family, which includes dad Mike and 22-month-old Aiden, tries to keep things as normal as possible for the music-loving, Wonder Woman-obsessed little girl.
“If she’s good, then we have to be good,” Kim Tunstall said. “Kids feed off people’s vibes.”
Dr. Yusuf Hannun, director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center, said treatments have improved but more work needs to be done by way of clinical trials. He noted Stony Brook’s emerging CAR-T therapy, which primes a patient’s T-cells to target certain lymphomas and leukemias. Through CAR-T therapy, which stands for chimeric antigen receptor T-cell, a patient's blood sample is removed and modified in a laboratory before being reintroduced into the body.
“We’re starting to make inroads and dents in some types of cancers, but not across the board,” Hannun said. “We have to do a lot more research.”