Marathon runner Paulette Stallone, 45, of Manalapan, knows that this solitary pursuit can be as much of a group effort as any team sport. Support and encouragement from other runners, her husband Mike, son Mike Jr., 17, and 20-year-old daughter Nicole (her running partner for the past few years) have helped her stay motivated and focused, she says.
After she was diagnosed with rectal cancer in February 2009, Paulette discovered the importance of teamwork and a positive approach with regard to her health as well.
In early 2008, she began suffering cramping, diarrhea, and sharp pains in her groin. Initially, the symptoms were treated as irritable bowel syndrome. But when months passed and nothing improved, she visited a gastroenterologist who suspected an abscess near her intestines and admitted her to CentraState Medical Center. There, tests confirmed the diagnosis.
When medical therapy did not heal the abscess, Jared Z. Gold, MD, the board-certified gastroenterologist who saw Paulette during her hospitalization, referred her to CentraState colleague Amit Kharod, MD, for minimally invasive surgery. During the December 2008 procedure to treat the abscess, Dr. Kharod, a board-certified surgeon, discovered that a fallopian tube had become wrapped around an ovary, and he treated that as well.
A Persistent Doctor
Although the surgery was successful, Dr. Gold suspected that the abscess might not have been the sole cause of Paulette’s symptoms, and he urged her to schedule a colonoscopy. Paulette resisted: “I was scared to get one, and maybe scared of what they might find,” she admits.
But the doctor kept after her. “I ran into Paulette at the mall one day and really hounded her,” he says.
“Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common form of cancer, yet only about 60 percent of people who are at risk are being screened.”
She ultimately had the colonoscopy in late February 2009, and a cancerous tumor was discovered. “Dr. Gold had to compose himself before telling me,” Paulette recalls. “He’s such a caring man. Something told him to keep looking, which saved my life.”
He referred her to Bhavesh Balar, MD, a board-certified hematologist/oncologist on staff at CentraState, who surprised Paulette by calling within 15 minutes after she got home from the colonoscopy, late on a Friday afternoon. “He asked if I would like to come in right then—he didn’t want me to have to wait and wonder all weekend. Then he spent two hours going over every step that would happen during treatment,” Paulette recalls.
Comfortable and Cared for
Dr. Balar recommended a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to reduce the tumor size, followed by surgery. “The therapy allows for a better surgical outcome,” he explains. In addition to six weeks of aggressive chemo, Paulette had a series of radiation- therapy sessions with board-certified radiation oncologist Henry Tsai, MD, on staff at CentraState. “He was always so patient and encouraging,” she recalls.
Throughout this trying period, she always felt “comfortable and cared for… The nurses answered all of my questions, always made me laugh, and everyone knew my name. I can’t say enough about my doctors. They all went above and beyond in every way, showing that they truly care about their patients.”
She admits that after being diagnosed, she fleetingly responded by making plans to quit her part-time work as a fitness instructor, unload her running gear, and say goodbye to the activities that had been so much a part of her life. The “pity party,” as she calls it, was short lived.
“I have a supportive husband and the best kids. They never left my side. My daughter said, ‘If you give up on running, you’re giving up on yourself,’” Paulette explains. “I realized my life wasn’t stopping. I learned to take back control.”
She ran a five-mile race just two days prior to surgery to remove the shrunken tumor, which Dr. Kharod performed in late May. “He was always there for me and never rushed me,” says Paulette.
The prognosis following surgery was excellent. Paulette even left the hospital earlier than expected. All that remained were several months of precautionary chemo to ensure the cancer was gone.
Positive Thinking and Teamwork
Doctors credit Paulette’s good physical condition and outlook with speeding her recovery. “The more active people stay, the better they do,” observes Dr. Balar. “Paulette’s will to fight was strong, and her thinking was positive.”
The doctors also emphasize the importance of a multidisciplinary, coordinated approach. “Treating cancer needs to be a team thing,” Dr. Gold says, adding that patients and their families play “an important part in the process as well.”
Not surprisingly Paulette has turned her experience with cancer into an opportunity. “I feel I need to get out and help others,” she says. “Tell them to walk and smell the air and laugh. If you’re into fitness, stay into fitness—rest if you have to, then keep running.”
For information on CentraState’s comprehensive cancer program visit www.centrastate.com/cancercare or call (866) CENTRA7 (236-8727).
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