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Frank Serianni - Patient Story

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"The doctors at Fox Chase didn't give up on me."

— Frank Serianni, Hodgkin's Lymphoma survivor

 

Frank and his son, Butch, at the beach.Frank and his son, Butch, at the beach.Family has always been important to me, my wife, Heather, and son, Butch, but it took on new meaning in 2009. I was running the tile installation business where I’d worked since I was a teenager. I had taken over the business in my late 20s after my father died. But at the age of 44, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Cancer and its repercussions made me too weak to heft a single box of tile or clamber up and down stairs like I once had, so I gave up the only line of work I’d ever known, and Heather became the breadwinner.

During the next four years of treatments, recurrences, complications, and changes in our lives, we came to see each other in a different light. The transition was difficult, but it helped that Heather and I had shared responsibilities through the years. Our marriage was always a partnership, regardless of what our roles were. So even though there was an adjustment, it was just a matter of reallocating our responsibilities. It was also a matter of making a choice not to live in the negative but to live in gratitude.

After learning of my initial diagnosis, I began treatment at a community hospital near my home. I underwent six months of chemotherapy and one month of radiation targeted to my chest. Follow-up testing revealed the cancer was still everywhere but my chest. I began another more aggressive course of chemotherapy, which seemed to work. To celebrate, in 2010, Heather, Butch, and I went on a cruise with friends and family. Three months later, the cancer was back. At that point, my doctor, who had completed his fellowship at Fox Chase Cancer Center, referred me to the Fox Chase-Temple University Hospital Bone Marrow Transplant Program.  

We met with a medical oncologist at Fox Chase right away. After extensive testing, I was recommended an autologous bone marrow transplant, using my own stem cells. I spent 35 days in the hospital for the transplant and another 100 days in isolation recovering at home. Unfortunately, the cancer returned a few months later. I was so discouraged. I started an experimental drug that really beat me up. I dropped down to 159 pounds and was so weak that I couldn’t lift a gallon of milk.

Despite this, the doctors at Fox Chase didn’t give up on me. This time, I would undergo an allogeneic bone marrow transplant—meaning I would accept stem cells from a donor, possibly a relative. In 2012, after three years of treatments, I was preparing for my second transplant. 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. My family members had all been tested, and my family and I were awaiting the results. At that time, I received a breathless call from my doctor’s physician assistant at Fox Chase. She excitedly told me that my brother Eddie was a perfect match, and I remember hearing the nurses in the bone marrow unit cheering with elation in the background.

The transplant itself was a test of family ties. My brother and I weren’t on good terms at the time, and I 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. When he opened the door, I started to cry and said, “I’m really sorry; you’re a perfect match.” Eddie assured me it was alright. In fact, the transplant reopened communication between us, and now we’re back to the way we used to be when we were younger.

The second transplant was similar to the first—35 days in the hospital, followed by 100 days in isolated recovery at home. I dealt with unpleasant side effects like blood clots in my neck and arm and an infection. But this time, something was different: My body accepted the new cells, and I had a successful recovery.

Knowing the procedure was a success, Frank had a big smile following open heart surgery.Knowing the procedure was a success, Frank had a big smile following open heart surgery.

In September 2013, I continued to experience the side effects of radiation therapy. I couldn’t make it up a flight of steps without pain in my chest. I was diagnosed with constrictive pericarditis, chronic inflammation of the sac-like membrane that surrounds the heart. Over the years, the radiation to my chest caused the fluid to drain. The protective band around my heart was literally squeezing my heart to death. Within a few days, Dr. Robert S. Boova, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Jeanes Hospital (another member of Temple University Health System, located next to Fox Chase), performed open heart surgery.

For the first time, I woke up from surgery with a smile on my face. I felt so much better, and I knew Dr. Boova had corrected the problem. During follow-up appointments with cardiologist Dr. David Masiak at Jeanes, I have continued to receive good reports.

Today I feel much, much better and have no signs of cancer. I wanted to find ways to offer hope to other patients, so for me, the first step was participating in Fox Chase’s Paws for the Cause fundraising dog walk in October 2013, 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, and it was great. When I’m at the hospital for check ups, I often drop in to visit patients who are about to have a bone marrow transplant. I want to show them there is hope—and to tell them I was in their shoes once, too.

My family and I have gone through horrible trauma that comes with cancer, and everything from emotions and finances were all impacted. During my diagnosis and treatment, my wife and I both rallied to help Butch, who turned 18 in 2013, 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 my wife and I spent long hours at the hospital, and they sat with me when I didn’t feel well.

Since my cancer journey, Heather and I went our separate ways. I have returned to work part-time, embraced my health with a fitness regimen, and work with a caterer to prepare food. I really am enjoying life—cooking, exercising, and spending time with my son, who is now a student at Drexel University. We love to explore the city and discover new restaurants together. That’s what life is all about. I’m grateful to my doctors and nurses for giving me a chance to live my life again.

 

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