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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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Beating the Odds

A student's victory over cancer

Matt Pavone's doctor said he would probably be OK, but the lack of certainty cast a shadow on his optimism.

In the winter of 2009, Pavone, a sophomore in the school of management, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma: the news was devastating for the game-playing, soup-cooking, fun-loving freshman.

"It was always ‘I need to get through this and I'll be okay,'" Pavone said.

Pavone was one out of 8,830 estimated people that year to be diagnosed with the lethal disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

While most college students were enjoying their winter break in 2009, Pavone was being told that he had a rare form of cancer that attacks the lymphoid tissues in the body. These vital tissues contain white blood cells that fight off infection. The cancer formed in the lymph nodes in Pavone's throat.

Small warning signs of Hodgkins Lymphoma emerged during Pavone's senior year in high school.

"I got sick, a cold, maybe it was mono, we just shrugged it off and I didn't go to the doctor," Pavone said. "Then maybe a month or two later, [the right side] of my neck got pretty swollen and it wasn't going away."

After the swelling in his neck did not go down, Pavone decided to see a doctor. At first, the doctor wasn't too concerned and told him to keep an eye on it. He diagnosed Pavone's symptoms as Cat Scratch Fever, a common disease in children that causes swelling in the lymph nodes.

The second time he visited his doctor he was referred to an oncologist who proceeded to transfer him to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, NY. This was where the term ‘cancer' was first considered as a possible diagnosis.

"It was weird, I was almost in denial…[but] I guess I handled it pretty well. I didn't break down or anything, I just kind of froze and accepted it," Pavone said. "My parents were pretty much in denial up to that point. They kept telling me ‘don't worry about it' because they were so worried. I wasn't shocked but at the same time I was because he actually said [cancer]."

Pavone participated in a Positron Emission Tomography (PET scan) and a Computerized Tomography (CT scan) to find if there were any cancer cells in his neck. Aside from waiting for the results, there wasn't much he could do, so he went back to UB for his second semester to complete his freshman year.

"When I was there the first day it was weird because it was like – I want to be [at school], but I don't know if I'm going to be [there for the rest of the year]. It was hard," Pavone said.

Pavone's second semester started on Jan. 7 2010. While the rest of UB was getting back into the swing of school, Pavone was receiving a call from his parents. He had been officially diagnosed with cancer and needed immediate attention. Pavone was going back home to Geneseo.

"We had just taken him back to UB the day before we found out and we went up to pick him up. I just thought, ‘You know, this could be it,'" said Paula Pavone, his mother.

There was no question in Pavone's mind that he would need to leave UB to take care of himself. Pavone packed up all his belongings and took his first step to curing his disease. "Coming home, the ride felt like a while…I kind of had accepted it and I was just trying to think about the next steps. It was just weird for me because I didn't know what to say to [my parents]. Sometimes it's harder for them as my family," Pavone said.

While Pavone accepted his fate, the same could not be said for his family. They had a harder time coming to terms with this life-changing news.

"In my mind I just didn't think that's what it was, his neck had swollen up probably a year before that and the doctor kept saying it was just an overactive lymph node," Paula said.

Family dinners became an important routine in the Pavone household. According to Laura, Pavone's younger sister and a freshman civil engineering major, Paula tried her hardest to include all of the "essential vitamins and nutrients he needed, so we had a lot of delicious home-cooked dinners that semester."

"Time spent with my family was always a priority on my to-do list. However, during this time, it became much more important and valued," Laura said. "Certain nights were more stressful than others, [like] when Matt was feeling especially off, and that would cause worrying in the family. But he rarely showed how he was feeling to any of us."

After going through the appropriate testing, Pavone was told he was at stage 3A of Hodgkin's Lymphoma. This identified where the cancer was located rather than how far along his diagnosis was. The cancer was mostly concentrated in his neck, with some spots infecting his liver and chest.

In February, Pavone started chemotherapy treatment. He underwent six treatments in the span of four months, with one session every three weeks. During these treatments, he was attached to several bags of chemicals being fed into his body, including water to keep his system hydrated.

"I went [into the hospital] and I didn't know at all what was going to happen," Pavone said. "I put pajamas on and got all comfy. Eventually, my doctor came in and made me sign all this stuff just saying, ‘Oh yeah we are about to pump deadly chemicals into you.'"

After the first treatment, the amount of cancer cells in Pavone's neck had gone down significantly. The doctors said that he showed one of the best and fastest responses to the treatment.

"The scariest [moment] was probably waiting for that first scan to come back," said Paul Pavone, his father. "We knew that would show how he reacted to the chemo and would set the tone for the whole thing. We found out it was extremely good and his reaction was outstanding and we all felt a lot better."

Although things were looking good, the chemotherapy was rough on Pavone, as with any cancer patient. Chemotherapy treatment lowers the amount of white blood cells in the body and weakens the immune system. Common side effects of this process often include feeling lethargic and exhausted.

"Around a day or two [after treatment] I felt really tired…at first it was just tired, then I felt really weak and sort of hard to describe," Pavone said. "Imagine just exercising a lot, like the most you ever have, and then your heart is racing. That happened to me when I would stand up," Pavone said. "It was worse at certain times; it wasn't always that bad. I mean, after treatment I would be done for a day or two and I wouldn't want to get up."

Hair loss is a common side effect of chemotherapy and a visual component of what most people associate with cancer. When Pavone started losing his hair, he was struck with the reality of his disease. Sporting a fro throughout high school, his long, curly hair had always been a signature of his personality.

"As his sister, it is my job to pick on him, but I have to admit, he looked good without the fro; we were all surprised at how well being bald fit him," Laura said. "Being bald was the first outward sign that Matt had cancer. If one didn't know he had Hodgkin's, one would not have guessed by the way he acted or looked before he lost his hair."

Pavone was admitted to the hospital after he came down with a 104-degree fever – it was at this point that he first noticed his hair loss.

"I woke up and I sort of looked over on my pillow and saw hair and I was like, man that's weird," Pavone said. "I remember at some point I just [touched my hair] and it came out, and I was like oh wow. I felt weird. I never really had short hair. I actually felt, oh wow, I'm a cancer patient, and it was creepy. That was the one thing that happened while I was alone and I wished someone was there."

Throughout his experience, Pavone was fortunate to have the unwavering support of his family at all times. Besides his mom accompanying his chemotherapy treatments almost every time, there was another cancer survivor in the family: his aunt, Angela Pavone.

"I went to chemo with Matt once, I went to some doctor's appointments to help ask questions," Angela said. "I think with so many people giving advice and loving you it's a bit different when a person really knows what you are going through; to be able to talk to someone who really knows how you feel. It sucks having chemo, it sucks having radiation and it sucks having scans every three months. When I talked to Matt, these things we could laugh [at] because he knew that I knew what doesn't suck is beating the crap out of your cancer and being able to live."

This support was a major part of what helped Pavone in his battle. It was especially helpful during the second half of chemotherapy when the feelings of hopelessness and giving up emerged.

"The first half was the accepting phase and I was like, ‘OK, this just is what it is and I'm going to deal with it,' so it wasn't too bad for me. But the second half was like…I've had enough. I'm ready to be done and I'm sick of doctors."

For Pavone, the hardest part at this time was the feeling of losing his independence. After experiencing the taste of freedom from his first semester at UB, doctors controlled every aspect of his life," Pavone said. "It got to a point when he just didn't want to go to the hospital anymore."

"They told me what to do every day and what not to do and what medications to take and when. Suddenly I went from college and having all my free time to almost a little kid without even a drivers license and without any freedom at all, it was pretty hard,"

Pavone fought through those feelings and when chemotherapy ended, the next step was radiation therapy. By this time, the swelling in his neck had gone down significantly. Radiation therapy is when beams of radiation are applied to the infected areas. Radiation lasted from April to the end of July and Pavone had to go every other day to get treatment.

"Radiation was bad, after a while, it was like being in the sun for a while and getting sunburn…it messed with my thyroid and my voice," Pavone said. "My mouth was always dry, it wasn't a whole lot of fun but it was better than chemo. I got some of my energy back and became some of my old self with my energy back, joking around, and having a good time."

When radiation treatment ended in the middle of July, the worst for Pavone was over.

"I wasn't crazy excited because when you're all done it's sort of like I was sick and being treated for it. In that sense it's almost better being treated because you know they are always doing something to make you better. Then when you're all done they sort of just push you out the door and are like ‘bye.' And you're like ‘I hope I am all better, I hope my body is going to stay OK and the way it is now.' It's hard," Pavone said. "I also had a bunch of follow up appointments and I still kind of felt like I was sick, being at the doctor so much."

One of these follow up appointments brought some alarm. Pavone had a scan done last spring, which came back with some frightening results. Doctors had discovered another spot on his liver.

"I had to go through [that] semester worried," said Pavone. "I was distraught, stressed out, and not the best of friend. I was disconnected from people, that went on for a few weeks, but I knew that no matter what it was I just would have to accept it."

After noticing the spot, Pavone didn't go straight to the doctors again for another scan because the doctors didn't know exactly what the spot was. They were giving it time to go away. Once the semester was over, Pavone went home and got the scans he needed.

"Matt was downstairs watching TV or playing video games and we were waiting for the phone call," Paula said. "When we got it, his father and I went running downstairs screaming, ‘It's good news, it's good news!'"

Since then, there hasn't been another scare or worry of the cancer returning.

"I feel like I'm a survivor, it's at that point where it was long enough ago that it happened," Pavone said.

As a survivor, looking back, Pavone realized he wouldn't have been able to get through it all without the support of his family and friends.

"If you don't have some form of support, seek some," Pavone said. "People really helped me pull through. If you already have some, more [support] never hurts."





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