Derek Gentile: Relay for Life stirs memories of dad as 'the Miracle Man'


PITTSFIELD — The South County Relay For Life is in a couple of weeks. For those who don't know, it's a weekend event that raises awareness of cancer and raises money for cancer research.

I'm here to tell you to support it, because it works.

My father, Joseph Gentile, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2000. I remember vividly his doctor explaining what was happening to him and giving him 32 months to live.

Mesothelioma is one of the fastest-working and deadliest cancers in the world. It's triggered by asbestos, to which dad was exposed when he was in the Navy in the 1940s.

When you hear that number, in his case, 32 months, this is what goes through the head of every cancer patient and every one of his family members: How many birthdays is that? How many Christmases, how many graduations, how many Red Sox games?

I know, because that was going through my head at the time.

The doctor finished his explanation. He gave us a video of what the actual procedure would be and we went into the outer office of the hospital to schedule the surgery.

As we drove home that night, dad held the video in his hand.

"Are you gonna watch that?" I asked him.

"No," he said. "You want to watch it?'

"No way," I said. "I know all I need to know."

I'm not going to go through the whole schlemiel. The surgery was stressful, recovery was slow. But the Old Man was a tough cookie, and I know it helped that his wife, Sylvia, is also a nurse. She got on him to take his medication and eat in a healthy manner.

But I remember that number — 32 months — was still hanging over the heads of Sylvia, my four sisters, dad's extended family and myself. Yes, he was still alive, but for how much longer?

So dad and I would return to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston for checkups. First it was every three months. Then every six months. I became very good at reading his chest X-rays before dad's surgeon, Dr. David Sugarbaker, would come into the examination room. Dad would avoid looking at them until I checked.

And every time we went, I would check the X-ray and say, "You're looking good here, dad. I don't see any abnormalities. Clean as a whistle."

This was a diagnosis echoed every time by Dr. Sugarbaker.

And 32 months went by. And 40 months. And 48 months. And 60 months. And 72 months.

And there came a time when Dr. Sugarbaker looked at the X-rays and said, "Joseph, I don't want to jinx this, but I think we can start using the 'c' word regarding your case."

"No," said dad. "Don't use that word."

He didn't want to jinx it either. So Dr. Sugarbaker never used the word. ('Cure' in case you weren't following along.) But after that, when dad and I would visit him at Peter Bent Brigham, Sugarbaker would line up a couple of patients who were going into surgery for mesothelioma and ask dad to talk to them.

I know this was helpful because my father always looked terrific and was always in shape. Sugarbaker and some of the nurses at the hospital called him "the Miracle Man."

I distinctly recall a man in his early 30s talking to my father about his upcoming surgery. I didn't stay in the examining room with him when he gave these talks because I believed they were very private. But the guy came out visibly emotional.

"Your father," he said, "is such an inspiration."

"Yeah," I said. "He is that."

So support the Relay For Life. I'm not saying that my father was saved because of the Relay For Life. David Sugarbaker is one of the best mesothelioma surgeons in the world. Peter Bent Brigham Hospital is also one of the best in the world. My father's recovery from a disease that is nearly always fatal was less a miracle than the collaboration of a team of dedicated professionals at a superb facility.

But supporting an organization like the Relay for Life inches us toward a cure for all cancer patients. And I cannot begin the describe how wonderful it was to have my dad for 12 years after that initial 32 months.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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