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The Ties that Bind: Redefined – The Story of a Lymphoma Survivor

Posted on Thursday, January 9, 2014

Family—always important to Frank Serianni, wife Heather and son Butch—took on new meaning after Frank was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009 at age 44. Over the next four years of treatments, recurrences, complications and wholesale changes in their lives, the Seriannis came to see each other in a different light and to think of members of Frank’s medical team at Fox Chase as family, as well.

Take the day Frank received a breathless call from physician’s assistant Linda Perry. After three years of treatments that included a transplant of bone marrow harvested from Frank’s own body, Frank needed a second transplant, this time from a donor. The tissue types of patient and donor must match. Otherwise, the patient’s body may reject the transplant or the transplanted cells may attack the patient’s body. Frank’s family members had been tested, and the Seriannis were awaiting the results. As Perry excitedly told Frank that his brother Eddie was a perfect match, Frank could hear the nurses in the bone marrow unit whooping with elation in the background.

“They were so happy for me,” he recalls. “I got off the phone and said, ‘That was like my four sisters calling me.’”

The transplant itself was a test of family ties. Frank and his brother weren’t on good terms at the time, and Frank knew Eddie had a fear of doctors and needles. “It was really hard for me to go down to his house and break the news,” Frank says. “When he opened the door, I started to cry and said, ‘I’m really sorry; you’re a perfect match.’” His brother assured him it was all right. In fact, the transplant reopened communication between the brothers and now, Frank says, “We’re back to the way we used to be when we were younger.”

“We’ve gone through this horrible trauma… but we’re still here, and we’re together and looking forward.”

The cancer experience changed the Serianni family in other ways. Before the illness, Frank ran the tile installation business he’d worked at since his teen years and taken over in his late twenties after his father died. But cancer and its repercussions made the once-hulking Serianni too weak to heft a single box of tile or clamber up and down stairs like he once had, so he gave up the only line of work he’d ever known, and Heather, who’d previously worked only “for fun,” became the breadwinner.

The transition was difficult, but it helped that the Seriannis had shared responsibilities throughout their marriage. “Our marriage was always a partnership, regardless of what our roles were,” Heather says. “So even though there was that adjustment, it was just a matter of reallocating our responsibilities; the partnership was still there. It was also a matter of making a choice not to live in the negative but to live in gratitude. … Yes, we’ve gone through this horrible trauma, and it’s been emotional and financial and all these things have been so impacted. But we’re still here, and we’re together and looking forward.”

As their roles shifted, Frank admired more than ever the intelligence with which Heather pursued her career goals, and Heather came to appreciate the fact that Frank’s strength went beyond the physical. “The things that he has had to psychologically endure, I don’t know if I could,” she says. “I really admire him for that.”

Both parents rallied to help son Butch, 18, cope with seeing his father change from a powerhouse who was always in motion—building and fixing things, planning what to do next—to someone who could hardly muster the energy to take 10 steps. Even the family dogs Stella and Violet did their part, keeping Butch company when Frank and Heather spent long hours at the hospital and sitting with Frank when he didn’t feel well.

Now that Frank is feeling much, much better and shows no signs of cancer, the family is moving into a new phase: finding ways to offer support and hope to other patients at Fox Chase. A first step was participating in the Center’s Paws for the Cause fundraising dog walk in October, where Butch played drums with two bands that entertained the crowd.

“It was the first time in a long time that I’d been to Fox Chase for something that wasn’t a treatment or a test,” Frank says, “and it was great.”

(Taken from Forward Magazine, Fall 2013, Author, Nancy Ross-Flanigan)

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Cancer Conversations is the Fox Chase Cancer Center blog for news and analysis from staff and friends of the Center, reflecting current news in the field of oncology.

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