Patient StoryJul | 14 | 2017
Anthony and Nina Schifone
The Cancer Center’s Story Project is an effort to capture stories from our community of patients, friends, family, clinicians, and staff who have been affected by cancer in some way. This is Anthony and Nina's Story.
- Anthony has been a patient at the Cancer Center for over 17 years. Anthony’s strong commitment to his wife, Nina, and love for his family has kept him going after he was given the diagnosis of a year to live in 1999.
- "I’ve had quite a few experiences here and I am grateful. That’s my story."
What have you learned about yourself since initially being diagnosed with cancer?
Anthony: “It’s always there. You’re never going to get rid of it unless they find the cure. But I’ve come a long way. The people, the hospital, the nurses, the whole, it’s been unbelievable. I have no choice but to be thrilled. I’ve met a lot of people and a lot of people have met me.”
Nina: “I think the cancer made him very emotional.”
Anthony: “Sometimes I cry for nothing and then I say what am I crying for? But quite a few years ago when I had heart surgery here my doctor told me, ‘Some days you’re going to cry for no reason at all. I just want to tell you ahead of time so you don’t think you’re going crazy.’ For years, nothing, and then all of a sudden I’d be watching the news and I’d see something sad and I’d get teary-eyed.”
Nina: “It was a very long journey, 5 years, and he’s had a brain tumor, his lung was removed, and cancer in his stomach, and the bone cancer. He is very, very positive, I’m not. I think everything is a crisis.”
Anthony: “She is a complete worrier. There’s nothing you can do about it. You know how people ask you, 'did this hurt, did that hurt?' Even if it did, I wouldn’t tell them, I wouldn’t scare them. I had bone cancer and lung cancer and then they said what else could go wrong? Bammo, not even a month later a brain tumor. I’m still here. And some of the doctors have left that had treated me in the beginning. I’m still in contact, sent a Christmas card and it’s been 18 years now.”
Nina: “Because when he was diagnosed with the small cell lung cancer, the doctor at that time had said it responded very well, but it would probably be a year survival in ’99, so it was a long road. The rehab I think was the most difficult because he couldn’t feed himself or walk, he couldn’t bring a spoon to his mouth.”
Anthony: “The easiest things turned into the hardest things to do.”
When your doctor told you were looking at a year to live, how did you fight that mentally?
Anthony: “You have to accept it. Never look back. Look ahead. I can’t talk to a group of people, and I’m struggling with talking one to one like this here. But you can explain better to the people who are going through it. One day at Mass General I saw a father and daughter. They were trying to decide if they should take their mother here. They finally did end up taking her here, but they didn’t know if they had done the right thing. And I said, well, why not? And they said it’s such a big hospital, she’s going to be like a fly here. I told them, you might think that, but after they’re through you’ll see.”
Nina: “I don’t think even when he said you had a year that you ever broke down about it.”
Anthony: “No, I was afraid of leaving you, that’s all. As long as I could see her [Nina] and my grandchildren, I’d get through it. Otherwise, I’ll be with my daughter. Life continues. You might be sad but the people that come down and look at the pictures on the [Wall of Hope] think oh my God the pour soul, but after all that time, I’m still here.”
Nina: “You just never complained.”
Anthony: “Like what I said whatever comes, comes. You can’t do anything about it.”
Nina: “He was in intensive care a lot with blood clots so he wasn’t with it a lot. I think when he went to rehab it was not being able to feed himself. They used very large utensils, they looked like something you would take camping. They would tape the spoon to his hand so he couldn’t drop it. But it took him weeks before he could reach his mouth to actually feed himself. That was the only time when he was down and sad, when he was not able to do that. The pain he could take.”
Anthony: “I would think things like: will I see my house again? That bothered me a lot. And here we are.”
Nina: “He’s here at 83, and I’m 78.”
Anthony: “We have been married 58 years. It’s what you make of life.”
Nina: “But you know, losing our daughter, she was 16, you know you don’t get over it. And then with the cancer and all, sometimes you think you just can’t do it but you do. She was ill, she had three surgeries here as an infant and two year old, and then at the Mayo Clinic. Things didn’t go well, they went well, she had an aneurysm. When I feel really, really sad you think of them all the time. There’s always something worse you can think of, and I think of the parents that have had a child abducted and that brings me right back because they never know what happened. So that is a loss that is even more hurtful and that never goes away.”
Anthony: “And you know what it’s been almost 30, 40 years. You never get over it.”
Nina: “You don’t want to but you know, there’s always another story that could be worse than your story.”
Anthony: “And that part continues, constantly. Every day, every day.”
Nina: “He always had a fun side. When he first came in, his doctor that was to be his surgeon, brain surgery. But he is the one who implanted BB’s in his head. They implanted BB’s in there so that when he had the proton they would hit the BB’s and not invade the rest of his head and his brain. So I’m sitting on a chair out there thinking oh my gosh they’re shooting bee bees in his head. And I’m thinking they’re shooting be bees in his head and they’re going to stay there so I thought, oh I wonder how he’s doing and I’m pacing outside until I’m like alright I’m going in and he’s sitting there and said to the doctor, I just hope you’re a better shot than Dick Cheney. And that’s how he gets through. He said 'I’m fine I’m fine." I think a sense of humor helps.”
Anthony: “Although, sometimes, if you want to let out some choice words for some reason, that helps too.”
Nina: “He had a strong relationship with Mimi (a nurse at the Cancer Center). She administered his chemo but now I think she oversees a department and is more on the administration end.”
Anthony: “It’s amazing how you get attached to somebody. And I don’t know if you know Mac downstairs, one of the car attendants.”
Nina: “He was just friends with everybody.”
Anthony: “It’s unbelievable the number of people that work together and the number of people you meet. You make friends with people you would never think. Cancer is what you have in common. It doesn’t matter what your occupations were or anything.”
Has your outlook changed over the past 20 years as far as priorities?
Nina: “The things that may have been worrisome before aren’t as much.”
Anthony: “My wife comes first that’s the only thing. And my daughter and my grandchildren. That’s the most important.”
Nina: “Anything that can be fixed and replaced is not a big deal. It used to really bother him when something would happen in the house.”
Anthony: “And our neighbors are really great. They fix everything that can be fixed. Neighbors can be better than relatives.”
Nina: “I don’t want him to think he can’t do all that he used to. People lose a limb and still do things. Just because you can’t do it in the same way doesn’t mean there isn’t another way. You just have to adapt. He has no feeling in his fingers anymore from the bone cancer, they are just always numb or asleep. So things like buttoning are hard. So I taught him how to use this tool and that’s how both of us button our shirts now. There’s always another way. If he can’t do something a certain way, we find a new way.”
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Anthony: “Not to be frightened. We are so fortunate that this is the medical capital of the world. There’s no other place in the world as good as this. All of the people here, they are a tremendous help to the patients.”
Nina: “And when he was well enough to go down, he would go around and talk to all the receptionists. And even when he was able to get out of his room, he would go into another room and talk to another patient.”
I’ve had quite a few experiences here and I am grateful. That’s my story.
This interview was conducted on January 18th, 2017 and has been edited for clarity.
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