Against All Odds

An Oceanport resident diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer is spreading a message of hope.

John DiDomenico and hematologist oncologist Seth Cohen, M.D., medical director of Oncology Clinical Research and Outpatient Infusion for the Leon Hess Cancer Center at Monmouth Medical Center.

More than 50 percent of patients had never heard of pancreatic cancer before their own diagnosis, according to pancreatic cancer action, and half the population cannot name a single symptom of the disease. Monmouth Medical Center, a leader in cancer care, urges everyone to know the symptoms and risks.

When John Didomenico was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer two years ago, he knew the odds were against him: this disease is one of the deadliest types of cancer.

But thanks to a rigorous regimen of chemotherapy and what John sees as the unique abilities of his Monmouth Medical Center oncologist, the 63-year-old oceanport resident today considers himself a “1 percenter”—among the small group of people still alive more than two years after an inoperable pancreatic cancer diagnosis. As such, he has set out to spread the message that a diagnosis of late-stage pancreatic cancer is not necessarily a death sentence.

“It’s my mission to provide hope to others with this disease that are face to face with this very bleak prognosis,” he says, noting that the typical life expectancy following a stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis is six months. He is also looking to spread the word that it isn’t necessary to travel to New York City or other far-off destinations for the very best cancer care—there is no special sauce, John says. He credits his remarkable survival to his hematologist oncologist Seth Cohen, M.D., Medical director of oncology clinical research and outpatient infusion for the Leon hess cancer center at monmouth medical center, as well as the staff of oncology nurses at the Monmouth Vantage Point Infusion Center, or his “angels,” as he calls them.

Currently, Dr. Cohen is a principal investigator of numerous clinical trials of various tumor types at Monmouth Medical Center. “Seth utilizes a scientific approach, along with a heavy measure of the human touch,” John says. “My goal is to give people who have a similar diagnosis hope that survival is an option. Dr. Cohen has the ability to stand toe-to-toe with anyone treating pancreatic cancer. I really want to spread the word that there is someone right here in our community with an attentionand feel for the management of pancreatic cancer. Hope is there for me, and it can be for others as well.”

Noting that he was originally referred to Dr. Cohen by his primary care physician, Jeffrey Felzenberg, M.D., for hematology care after suffering a pulmonary embolism in 2011, John says a thanksgiving 2014 visit to Monmouth Medical Center’s emergency department for very sharp pain in his lower right back revealed the diagnosis of a pancreatic tumor. After seeking opinions at two New York hospitals, he decided to come back to Monmouth and Dr. Cohen.

“I felt very comfortable with Seth,” he says. “Yes, pancreatic cancer is deadly, but he is able to manage a very ferocious disease—and his level of success is real. I want others to know that there is hope, there is someone right here in our community who is as proficient as anyonetreating pancreatic cancer. There is a lot of hope based on results created here, and i want to offer myself as an example of what can be done.”

John’s wife, Annie, concurred – adding that at their initial visit with Dr. Cohen, he never said anything about having six months to live. “He said we are not going to talk about life expectancy and urged us not to go online and look at the statistics,” Annie says. “Seth has always been John’s personal cheerleader—there were days where he would feel defeated, but if he had a visit with him, he would leave feeling so uplifted.” 

It is estimated that 41,780 people in the U.S. (21,450 men and 20,330 women) will have died from pancreatic cancer by the end of the year. It is a disease that is often difficult to diagnose because there are no specific, cost-effective tests that can easily and reliably find early-stage pancreatic cancer in people who have no symptoms. This means it is often not found until stage IV, when the cancer can no longer be removed with surgery and has spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body.

John is fighting hard against this aggressive disease that has seen him admitted to Monmouth Medical Center’s ICU three times, and in addition to Dr. Cohen, points to the hospital’s outstanding nursing care and the additional medical care he has received from Dr. Felzenberg and Ben Terrany, M.D., a gastroenterologist.

John emphasizes that because the message surrounding pancreatic cancer is so negative, the psychological component and family advocacy are essential to keeping people with pancreatic cancer alive. “I have a great family who is so supportive of me,” he says, pointing to his family, which includes: annie, his wife of 42 years; Gabriella, his 33-year-old daughter, her husband, Tim, and their 3-year-old daughter Lucia Susanna; John, his 29-year-old son, and his girlfriend Cora; and Timeo, his 20-year-old son. “It is so much easier on them as well as me to have this treatment close to home. Quality moments spent with them are priceless.”

“Dr. Cohen knows how to ground the psychological with the physical. Cancer patients today are looking for someone with a deeper understanding of what science and technology have always brought to the human condition, and there is someone right here who truly understands this,” John says.

In addition to raising hope, John is eager to use his story to raise awareness of the need for data sharing, fundraising for the small group of patients surviving with advanced pancreatic cancer and funding for research into a cure.

“There are not a lot of solutions, and finding solutions will only come through a sharper attention, and money,” he says. “I will do anything I can to help raise awareness—I want charitable value to come from this.” 

Categories: Home & Style Features, Homepage Features, Hospital Features, Monmouth Health & Life