It’s normal for cancer patients to feel helpless, not in control of their lives. But Joe Stivala was determined not to develop that mindset when he was diagnosed with non-small-cell lung cancer three years ago at the age of 58. Instead, he learned as much as possible about his disease, began asking his doctors questions about his treatment options and took control of his situation.
As part of this year’s Lung Cancer Awareness Month, Stivala wants to help others take control of their cancer treatment by sharing his story on staying positive and taking charge of his treatment when faced with this difficult-to-treat disease.
How did you learn that you had lung cancer?
I was at my favorite restaurant and couldn’t eat a single bite. Being a former chef and a person who loves food, I knew something was wrong. Ten days later, I was admitted to the hospital and put in isolation. Visitors had to wear masks; my doctors didn’t know what I had and thought I could be contagious. A pulmonologist biopsied my lungs and diagnosed me with stage IIIb non-small-cell lung cancer. People talk about being diagnosed with such an advanced stage lung cancer as a death sentence. And it’s certainly true that the survival rate is low.
LUNG CANCER SURVIVOR JOE STIVALA (FAR RIGHT) IS THANKFUL THAT HE WAS ABLE TO WATCH HIS OLDEST DAUGHTER GET MARRIED IN 2014.
How did you react to that diagnosis?
I refused to look at it as the end. I could have gone around feeling sorry for myself, but that would not have helped. I decided this wasn’t the end. So, I geared myself up to do whatever was needed, and I took full ownership. I decided to do it my way, like the Frank Sinatra song. I learned as much as possible from sources such as the American Cancer Society, the National Lung Cancer Foundation of America, Lungevity Foundation and the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. I’m not a doctor, but I can now talk intelligently about my disease.
How did that approach help you through your treatment?
It gave me the confidence to push back on my doctors when I didn’t agree. I was raised to treat doctors as if they were infallible, but now I’ve come to realize that each doctor has his own expertise and opinions. I didn’t waste time with answers that didn’t satisfy me. You have to get a second, third, and fourth opinion—as many as you need. Otherwise, you’re doing yourself a disservice. So I researched a specialist in my particular cancer. He talked with me about the options, including clinical trials, and we decided to try a new chemotherapy combination.
There’s more hope than ever before. In just the last three years, so many new treatments and trials have become available.
How effective was the treatment?
My pulmonologist still doesn’t believe that I’m alive and living normally. There’s nothing I can’t do. I used to love golfing when I was younger, and now I’m back out on the golf range almost every week. It’s nice to be on the course and in the sun, enjoying time with my friends.
How did you remain positive through your experience? What gave you optimism?
My three children kept me going. That included little signs of support—like how my oldest daughter would text me positive quotes every morning during my treatment—and big milestones that I wanted to celebrate with them. I’m thankful that I got to watch my youngest daughter graduate high school and my two older children get married. And now, we’re expecting my first granddaughter in a couple of months.
JOE STIVALA (FAR LEFT) CELEBRATES HIS YOUNGER DAUGHTER’S HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION WITH HIS OTHER CHILDREN AND EX-WIFE.
Did you get emotional support from any unexpected places?
I’m grateful for my spiritual advisors and some true friends who have really stepped up. I was really surprised by the number of old classmates from high school who have wished me well through Facebook. I never liked Facebook, but it gave me a forum to be very open and honest about my disease. The response was very positive, and now I’m paying it forward to support others. I connected with a high school friend the day after her 38-year-old daughter was diagnosed with colon cancer, unbeknownst to me, and now I’m supporting them. Everything happens for a reason.
Why should lung cancer patients be hopeful about their future?
There’s more hope than ever before. In just the last three years, so many new treatments and trials have become available. You have new immunotherapies and chemotherapy combinations. And it’s just the beginning. So many doctors and researchers are working hard on a cure. When I heard Siddhartha Mukherjee, the author of “The Emperor of All Maladies,” speak earlier this year, he said we could see cures for most cancers within the next 25 years. And I believe him, and lung cancer patients should too.