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Joyce Vrbicek: A Family Journey with Cancer

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Before cancer, I was a retired Philadelphia police officer who enjoyed many wonderful adventures with my husband, Braco. We enjoyed running businesses together, traveling together, and raising our daughters together. But, when Braco was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016 at the age of 57, everything changed.

And, a few years later in 2019, I was faced with my own lung cancer diagnosis.

Facing Cancer Together

Cancer has affected my entire family in one way or another. Our journey began in 2016. My husband had a terrible cough, and he was having trouble breathing—but he never told me that he was coughing up blood. I didn’t find out until Father’s Day later that year when I found bloody tissues in our bathroom. I confronted him, and my daughter and I jumped into action. We took him to an urgent care clinic immediately. When we got there, they told us that we needed to go straight to the hospital.

There, they found a big mass on Braco’s lung. He was diagnosed with Stage IV small cell non-squamous lung cancer and was quickly started on radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Eventually, he was transferred to Fox Chase and placed under the care of Dr. Christopher Manley.

Joyce Vrbicek's husband Braco received treatment for lung cancer at Fox Chase. When she was diagnosed with lung nodules, it was her first choice to be treated here.Joyce Vrbicek's husband Braco received treatment for lung cancer at Fox Chase. When she was diagnosed with lung nodules, it was her first choice to be treated here.

If it wasn’t for Dr. Manley, we would have lost him a long time before we did. Dr. Manley and Dr. Jessica Bauman at Fox Chase fought hard to keep him alive. He was put on a ventilator a total of seven times. It was our daughter’s senior year of high school; we remained hopeful that he would be able to watch her go to prom and attend her graduation ceremony. He was able to be there to pick out our daughter’s prom dress. And, he was able to come home from the hospital on her graduation day, though he was too sick to attend the ceremony. Either way, we’re grateful for every extra moment that we were able to spend with him. Drs. Manley and Bauman were with us every step of the way. And, as a family, we made sure that he was never left alone. He was surrounded by love 24/7.

An Unexpected Turn of Events

After losing Braco, I went into a tailspin. The grieving process was hard. I stopped doing everything I enjoyed. All I could do was go to work, come home, and sleep.

Before he passed away, Braco urged me to get serious about my health. He asked me to get a complete physical because he was concerned about my diabetes and also encouraged me to quit smoking.

In 2019, I went to a local hospital to find out if I was a candidate  for a low-dose CT scan, which is used as a screening tool for lung cancer. After the procedure, I was told that I had lung nodules. The doctor wanted to perform a bronchoscopy to examine the inside of my lungs, but a regular bronchoscopy wasn’t going to be able to reach the tumors. We would have to find someone else to do it. I immediately decided, “No one else is going to do it but Dr. Manley.” So, my doctor texted him while I was in the room; a couple of days later, I went to see him.

Dr. Manley confirmed that I had several carcinoid tumors, so he performed a bronchoscopy with the Monarch technology at Fox Chase. It was the Monarch that was able to reach the carcinoid tumors and biopsy them. Without this advanced technology, they would have had to perform surgery to reach the tumors for a biopsy. These carcinoid tumors are slow growing and will need to be monitored closely.

Cancer is always a scary experience, but in my case, the good news is that the carcinoid tumors in my lungs are not aggressive. I was relieved when Dr. Manley told me, “Nobody wants cancer, but if you had to get cancer this is the one you want because it could be dormant for the rest of your life.”

I visit Dr. Manley at Fox Chase about every three months so that we can keep an eye on these carcinoid tumors and monitor any changes.

Cherishing Every Moment

I have two pieces of advice for anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer: first of all, get treatment right away to increase your chances of beating it, and—love your family. Tell them how much you love them and do whatever you can to be together. Cherish every single moment.

Learn more about robotic bronchoscopy at Fox Chase.

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