Stefan Pietrobono of Toronto, Canada is a 19-year-old student who plays competitive hockey while living his life to inspire others. Oh, did I mention that he is also a cancer survivor [and] I had the privilege of getting to know him recently? Stefan is a survivor of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma IIIB diagnosed when he was 17 years old, the summer before he would begin his senior year in high school.
Stefan said: “June 28th, I’ll never forget this day. June 28th was the day of my grandmother’s birthday, a day that turned from good to bad to the worst day of my life. You see, on this day I received a phone call at about 8 AM to hear the words of tears from my mother that my grandfather had passed away early that morning. Who would have known that 4 hours later my life would change forever. The day before I had a physical check-up at my family doctor along with blood work. I received a call from SickKids Hospital on June 28th and they told me that I had to get down there as soon as possible alongside my family. So, dressed in black and wearing a suit ready to bury my grandfather, we all headed down to SickKids to meet with doctors and oncologists, knowing absolutely nothing, not knowing why I was there or what would happen. We all gathered in a room with multiple doctors after doing some scans and blood tests and they finally said “Stefan, there’s no easy way to say this but we took a look at the scans and blood work and you have cancer”. You can only imagine what I was feeling at this time, it felt like a bomb was dropped on me, like anything and everything that could go wrong was going wrong. After hearing this news, 2 hours later I was carrying my grandfather down the aisle to be buried and laid to rest. This is why I will never forget the day June 28th”.
Hodgkin’s Lymphoma [HL] is a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system and often becomes obvious due to enlarged lymph nodes, in particularly, thoselymph nodes located just above the collar bone whether right or left. Because lymph, part of our immune system moves readily through our bodies, a thorough work up is necessary to determine how far the HL has spread which will determine the best treatment approach for each individual person.
The staging workup for HL included lab work, chest x-rays, CT scans of the chest abdomen, and pelvis, Gallium scans, possibly MRI/PET scans, Bone Marrow Aspirate/Biopsy, and a bone scan. Baseline Heart [and] Lung Function are also obtained before therapy is started.
Once the staging process was complete, Stefan [and] his family were told that he had Stage IIIB HL, but what does Stage IIIB mean? “Stage III” means that he had evidence of HL above [and] below his diaphragm, the breathing muscle that separates the lungs from the abdomen. The “B” means that Stefan had experienced “B” symptoms leading up his diagnosis. “B” symptoms include weight loss of <10% body weight over 6 months, drenching night sweats, and fever of at least 101.5F. However, Stefan showed none of these symptoms and was told to be non-symptomatic.
The doctors drew the conclusion that due to Stefan’s high level of physical fitness, and a lifetime of very competitive hockey, it masked all symptoms related to HL giving Stefan no signs as to what was taking over his body until a physical lump appeared on the side of his right neck. Stefan, being is such great shape hurt him but also helped him in the long run throughout his fight. Stefan being in great physical shape allowed his body to withstand an aggressive treatment plan. The oncologists estimated that the cancer has been growing in his body for nearly 6 months prior to diagnosis. Stefan’s battle and journey lasted 8 months of intense treatments including both chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
In talking with Stefan, we found a lot of common ground rooted in the lived experience of having had cancer, but most importantly, we share a common desire, indeed passion, to have an impact of the lives of others facing similar trials.
For sure, we told war stories about the well entrenched, intractable nausea and the endless vomiting; the doxorubicin mouth sores; the constipation and jaw pain from the Vincristine; and the joint, knee, and low back pain of the Prednisone. Stories that we can laugh about now, but were no fun in the moment.
Then I directed our conversation towards the longer term [and] asked how much he had learned about his risk for potential late effects. I was pleased to listen as he told me that not only did his medical team, but he, himself did research on future health risks and side affects. He was offered sperm banking to preserve his ability to father children in the future. He was aware that his follow up needed to be lifelong, especially with regard to his heart [and] lungs because of the Doxorubicin [and] Bleomycin, respectively.
Stefan shared with me a quote that pulled him through some of his darker moments: “In every tunnel there is light at the end of it.” I, then, asked if he were to meet another 17 year old, what would he say. He responded: “NEVER give up. If I could do it, so can you”.
In fact, Stefan has had the opportunity to reach out to other teens facing a diagnosis of cancer. He recounted the following story:
“I met Adam through some family friends of mine. As I was finishing up my treatment, he was diagnosed with HL too but staged IIB, so they asked if I could get in touch with him to lighten his spirits and show him “hey look I’m almost done and beat what you just got diagnosed with.” It gave him a sense that everything was going to be okay. We often compared symptoms and stories, I would say that I was a lead example for him to show him that “yeah. I had those exact symptoms, or yeah that’s normal- don’t worry about it”. We still keep in touch throughout the year [and] he, too, is now a fellow survivor of HL IIB.
Today, Stefan is knee deep in the study of Kinesiology at the University of Toronto looking at the possibility to becoming a Physical Therapist or a Chiropractor. As a survivor, Stefan has wanted to get involve and help find a cure, he is an ambassador and actively involved with Light the Night Canada (@LTNOntario, @LLSCanada) to raise research funding for the Leukemia [and] Lymphoma Society as well as the charity, Vaughan in Motion (@VaughanInMotion). He is, truly, living [to] inspire [and] in my opinion, he’s succeeding in a BIG way!
Finally, his mom, Patricia Pietrobono has written a book on Stefan and his battle called, Cancer Check available <here>.
You can follow Stefan on twitter @spietrobono4 [and] @CancerCourage_ . Correction: you MUST follow him on twitter. He’s one to watch as he lives out his cure.
Stefan, I thank you for taking the time to talk with me about the life of your lived experience [and] I look forward to many cooperative efforts on behalf of survivors in the years before us.
Thankful to have you among the ranks of the cured, my friend!