She never wanted to be a patient; she wanted to remain a person

Veronica Muscolino, during a chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer. (PHOTO BY ROBERT MESCAVAGE)

Veronica Muscolino, during a chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer. (PHOTO BY ROBERT MESCAVAGE)

What she feared most was pity.

Veronica Muscolino didn’t like the idea of telling people about her diagnosis, and then facing pitiful looks. She dreaded the role of lung cancer patient almost more than the disease itself.

She and her husband were pleasantly surprised when they came for treatment at the Upstate Cancer Center.

“They clearly have selected the right nurses to work there,” says Mickey Muscolino, who is a 26-year employee of Upstate’s clinical pathology department. Nodding in agreement, Veronica Muscolino describes: “They treat us like people, not like patients.”

The first sign

Hers was a serious diagnosis, and it came as a shock.

What began as an odd twitching in her eye last spring turned out to be a signal of one of the deadliest of lung cancers, small cell lung cancer.

As the eye-twitching episodes continued, eventually her doctor referred her to a neurologist, who sent her for a magnetic resonance imaging scan. That revealed lesions on her brain in a couple of areas, which were causing her neurological symptoms.

The neurologist referred Muscolino to Dorothy Pan, MD, a medical oncologist at Upstate, who zeroed in on her enlarged lymph nodes. It was the week before Easter when Muscolino underwent a biopsy of her lymph nodes. She and her husband got the results on Good Friday.

Stephen Graziano, MD, called them at home. A colleague of Pan’s, Graziano specializes in caring for patients with lung cancer. He’s been at Upstate since he graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1979, first completing an internship and then residency and fellowship training.

Muscolino, a former smoker, began 10 days of radiation therapy in the week after Easter. Then she had six rounds of chemotherapy. She would have infusions of medication for three consecutive days, and then have two weeks off. That course was completed in August.

Throughout treatment, she says she has not felt ill, although she lost her hair, and she lost 30 pounds because the taste of food lost its appeal.

At her followup appointment in late October, tests showed that Muscolino’s tumors were stable or shrinking. More recent tests have shown they are growing.

Family ties

The Muscolinos are in their 40s and live in East Syracuse. Their three children are grown. Veronica works at the Syracuse University bookstore and has been involved in cheerleading coaching for more than 20 years. Mickey, in addition to his job in clinical pathology, served on the East Syracuse school board and coached basketball.

Since the diagnosis, however, the couple has pulled out of those activities. They instead want to volunteer somewhere together. “It is our faith in God that provides us peace and great strength,” Mickey Muscolino says.

Graziano says the majority of patients with small cell lung cancer respond well to chemotherapy. If the first round is not effective, patients typically receive a second round. In Muscolino’s case, Graziano has prescribed a different medication, “something the tumor hasn’t seen before.”

Muscolino remains positive. She’s learned to accept the generosity of friends who provide meals for her family, accompany her to infusions or help in other ways. She knows they’re not acting out of pity, but of love.

Layout 1This article appears in the winter 2016 issue of Cancer Care magazine.

 

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