When You’re On A Holiday, You Can’t Find The Words To Say

Last week, Ashley and I were away on vacation and I had one goal in mind – to relax and forget about the everyday grind for a while.  Out of the gates, 2015 was fast and furious with the surgery for my regrowth, to returning to work everyday with an occasional “day off” for my followup doctors’ appointments.  It was definitely time.

We had kicked around some ideas of where to go, but we settled on the El Conquistador in Puerto Rico.  The resort is located in Fajardo, about 45 minutes outside of the bustling city of San Juan.  As you head up the driveway to the property, you are surrounded by sprawling acres of golf courses, tennis courts, palm trees and other natural vegetation.  Then suddenly, the resort appears right before your eyes.  Growing up, I have had the luxury of traveling to some great destinations over the years, and this one ranks up there with the greats.

Aside from being a phenomenal vacation, the trip also provided me with time to reflect on the past.  We left on July 2nd, which happened to be my seven-year “brainaversary”.  In comparison, these two days could not have been any more different.  This July 2nd, I was elated and jubilant; then, I was uneasy and wracked with emotions.  Two days later, on July 4th, Ashley and I watched a magnificent firework display from the balcony of the lobby with other guests of the resort.  And as I stood there watching IMG_3427the fireworks going off over the water, I had a flashback to July 4, 2008 while laying in my hospital bed watching the firework over the New Haven harbor.  I remembering enjoying that night, feeling happy with the prognosis I was given and the great strides I was making in my recovery, yet it was still difficult as a hospital was the last place I wanted to be that night.  The feeling I had this year is hard to describe, but there was a definite sense of joy and relief as I watched the fireworks right before my eyes over the waters of the Caribbean.  This was where I wanted to be and to have come so far made me proud.

Two days later, Ashley and I hopped on onto the first ferry over to Palomino Island, a private island owned by the resort.  Guests ride the high speed ferry from the marina to the island and within 15 minutes, you step off into another world. There was a definite calming sense from being one of the few people on an island in the middle of the ocean so early in the morning, but we wanted to pick the best spot we can find.  When we found our spot on the beach,IMG_1798 I took it all in; I found myself reflecting once again.  But I learned a few years ago that you need to realize that it is okay to reflect and actually process what you went through, so I did.  I went back to July 6, 2008.

Throughout the past seven years, this was the scariest day for everyone involved.  Ashley had been at the hospital with me on July 5th for a visit and we were all smiles.  Though I was unable to communicate with her at that time, I was so happy to have her by my side, spending time with me.  Not less than 12 hours later though, I was being rushed into the OR for emergency surgery.  I had done a complete 180 and was manifesting symptoms similar to a stroke.  The right side of my body had gone lifeless.  Would I make it out alive?  Would I have permanent side effects that would leave me a in a vegetative state?

Flash forward to the present day, I looked over to my left and there was Ashley, right by my side again.  I am so fortunate for her.  And as I stared at the aqua blue water, it was hard to believe that I had come this far.  I experienced a rush of gratitude to be so blessed to experience all that this beautiful life has to offer.  The beginning of the year proved that life isn’t always easy, but whether I’m preparing for surgery or floating in the Caribbean, isn’t it amazing to just be here?   To be fully functioning and experiencing each moment makes it all worth it.

It’s The Final Countdown

Playing for the Cure, Brainstormin’ is well underway!  We are less than 100 days away, and the excitement is building.  The bands and venue are booked, the date and time are confirmed, letters have been sent out and sponsorships are continuing to roll in.  A huge thanks so far to our corporate sponsors including the Hartford Courant, Carla’s Pasta, Stop & Shop, Gaylord Specialty Healthcare, ShelfSpace Marketing, LLC, Edge Technologies and the UNITAS Club of Hamden – just to name a few.  With all the support, we hope and expect to be able to surpass the $10,100 that we donated last year.  Even though the event is fast approaching, there is still time if you wish to support the cause.  And if you cannot attend, we have set up a site where you can make a donation.  http://www.youcaring.com/yale-brain-tumor-center-381093

The lineup of musical acts features Goodnight Blue Moon and Broca’s Area.  When we approached Goodnight Blue Moon, a successful bluegrass-meets-indie rock band, they eagerly jumped at the opportunity.   The band’s drummer, Nick D’Errico, is a longtime friend of mine and has shown my family and I a great deal of support since 2008.  He was also Stephen’s first drum teacher and an inspiration for him to study music and start Broca’s Area.   I am personally thrilled and honored to welcome Nick and Goodnight Blue Moon on the 19th and I hope that their fans in attendance will be inspired by our efforts with Yale and that this will be the start of a new long-lasting venture with the band.

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Left to right: Mike Carabello, Mary Corso, Stephen Cusano, Ghazi Omair, and Leo Catricala (Broca’s Area)

The second act is Stephen’s band, Broca’s Area.  On June 17th, the Connecticut Music Awards were held at Infinity Music Hall and Bistro in Hartford.  With their infectious soul/hip-hop tracks, Broca’s Area  took home the awards for ‘Best New Band’ and ‘Best R&B/Soul/Funk’.  I know that I speak on behalf of Stephen and the band when I say thank you to everyone who voted for them.  The band members are beyond excited by their wins and have since been asked to headline a show at Infinity Music Hall.   If you attended last year’s show, you’ll know how talented they are and after another year of playing together, they continue to gel.

If Broca’s Area’s Connecticut Music Awards wins weren’t enough to make a big brother beam, I continue to be so proud and impressed by their commitment to the brain tumor community.

So please, SAVE THE DATE!  Come watch two fantastic bands and support this great cause on September 19, 2015 at 6:30p.m. at the Outer Space Ballroom in Hamden, CT.  Together, we can and will find the cure to brain tumors and brain cancer.

Father and Son

As Father’s Day approaches, I decided to change things up a bit and celebrate my dad in the best way I know how – and that is to dedicate this post to him.  You may recall A Man’s Best Friend.  That post, written by my dad, reflects on my first surgery and the turmoil my family faced during that time.  Now, I return the favor and share some happier memories.

For those of you who have the privilege of knowing him, you likely think that his favorite thing is food.  I’m not going to lie, he enjoys it.  After all, he has taken the snack food industry by storm and has done some remarkable things with various companies.  However, I can tell you, as his son and growing up under his roof, that his favorite things are his wife, kids and grandson, trusty dog Chip, son-in-law, daughter-in-law and extended family.  A true family man.

There are countless memories that I can share with you, but there is one memory which I will always treasure and I know that he agrees.

The year was 1999 and the UConn men’s basketball team had just advanced to its first ever Final Four.  I was just a freshman in high school, but already had my sights set on UConn as my college of choice.  My dad is an avid fan as well and enjoys watching the games, so when UConn secured its ticket to the final four, the decision was easy – off to Tampa Bay we would go.

Going into the weekend, I remember being so confident and optimistic of the team’s chances.  I knew in my heart that they would return to Connecticut as champions.  My dad was hopeful, but not as confident.

In the national semifinals that Saturday, UConn defeated Ohio State and Duke beat Michigan State.  The final game of the season was set – UConn would play Duke for the National Championship.

On Sunday, excitement, anticipation and worry sank in.  There was a buzz around Tampa Bay, basically crowning Duke as the champions.  UConn entered the game as 9.5 point underdogs – that was quite the spread for a championship game.  After all, this was UConn’s first ever final four appearance and Duke played the 1999 season like a seasoned professional.  Regardless of the odds though, I was probably the only person who actually believed they would win.  As my dad was saying “I hope they win and think they have a shot, but they need to play their best game of the season and I think they are capable, so we’ll see.”

My dad and I spent that day talking about basketball and acting as if we were analysts.  The atmosphere was electric – on the beach, there were artists drawing the two school’s logos in the sand; television and media coverage everywhere you looked; pep bands playing the school’s fight songs; and just an overall great feeling.  As the time continued to pass and the sun set, Monday was shaping up to be a pretty special day.

When the game began, there was an overwhelming sense in the crowd, other than by UConn fans, that this game would be a blowout win for Duke.  I had Duke fans to my immediate left and we exchanged cheers and excitement throughout the game.  At halftime, UConn trailed by 2 points and nerves were settling in.  But they kept pace and as my dad said to me “it’ll come down to the final minute and whoever has the ball last will win this game.”  Sure enough, it did.

I can remember it like yesterday: with nine seconds left, UConn was up 75-74 and Trajan Langdan of Duke was driving to the basket and was whistled for traveling.  At the other end, the inbound went to Khalid El-Amin.   He was immediately fouled and stood at the free throw line to shoot two free throws – he hit the first and the second, which left Duke about 5 seconds to get down the floor and tie the game.  In what felt like the longest five seconds of my life, I nervously watched as Duke rushed down the court and with seconds to spare, Trajan Langdan approached the three point arch and then tripped and failed to get a shot off.   With that, the final buzzer sounded and UConn had done it!  As El-Amin shouted into the camera “we shocked the world!”  IMG_1714UConn was the national champion, ending Duke’s 32-game win streak.

The Trop turned into pandamonium.  The Duke fans were stunned and the UConn fans were jubilant.  The excitement of that game never wore off and brought my dad and I closer as father and son.  We talked about it for days and months, and still do.

For my thirtieth birthday, he handed me this card, along with a wrapped box:
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In 1999, my dad received one of the championship rings that the team received for his support of the university and I had always admired it.  Inside of the wrapped box was a UConn themed jewelry box which plays the UConn fight song and the ring.  I wear it on special occasions only, and when I do, I am instantly brought back to that weekend.  Those memories will will live with me forever, also.

That weekend is the epitome of who my father is.  The rock of our family and the person that my family and I can always turn to for support.  When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, he asked God for a sign and a maple leaf fell into his hand; when I was brought back to Yale in the midst of my misery for neurospychological testing, he again asked for a sign that I would get through this and the ladybug appeared and stayed with him for hours.  He will do anything for his family and children and I know that I speak for my family when I say how lucky we are.

When I think back on those results of the neuropsych tests, I find similarities to the 1999 Final Four weekend.  Just as he was uncertain, but hopeful that UConn would win, when we learned the results of my testing and contemplated the shunt surgery, he was again cautious, yet optimistic.   In both cases, he certainly could not have expected the miracle that occurred.  Yet, he and the ladybug assured my family and I that I would show improvement.  He knew I had a fighting chance that I could regain my cognitive functions, but was not making any guarantees as to when. Talk about “shocking the world”!

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!  Thanks for everything!

Love,
Chris

Live For Tomorrow, Be Happy Today, Laugh All Your Sorrows Away

Growing up, I always heard the saying “laughter is the best medicine” but thought to myself, “nah, that is just a saying.”   Or is it? This past Tuesday, the CT Brain Tumor Alliance proved that it’s one hundred percent true.  The CTBTA’s annual “Laughter on the Brain” was held at Infinity Hall in Hartford.  The goal of the event was simple – to raise awareness, money and support for brain tumor patients and quite simply – for everyone to have some fun.  That goal was met instantly.

With a great vibe from Broca’s Area to kick off the night, followed by the opening remarks, a few words from yours unnamedtruly, and an awesome live auction, the night was off to a great start.  But on my mind, and I would venture to guess almost everyone else’s in the room, was the topic of brain tumors and brain cancer.  It is hard not to think about the devastation that can occur from the diagnosis, but the CT Brain Tumor Alliance did another wonderful job in making the best of a dark situation.  Once the comedians took the stage, all was forgotten – at least for the time they took the stage.

The comedians featured included Eric Tartagilione, Dr. Jay Sutay and Kevin Lee.  Maybe it’s my new-found obsession with the medical profession and doctors, but my favorite of the night was Dr. Sutay.  Donning a Scooby Doo tie, this guy was absolutely hysterical.  As if it wasn’t funny enough that he is legitimately a practicing doctor by day, but his jokes were absolutely phenomenal.  He had people in stitches!  Get it?!?

Instinctively, this made a light bulb go off – wouldn’t it be great for hospitals to set up comedy shows for patients?  It does not have to be a professional comedian or anything elaborate, but simply, a way to make patients and caregivers laugh. Hey, there’s even some science behind it.  I think back to the day during my recovery when I went to see Tropic Thunder with my sister and brother-in-law in the theaters.  Despite having little ability to verbally communicate, I screamed with laughter, which in turn gave the two of them a good laugh and some comfort that I was still in there.  The movie was so bad that it was hysterical to me (or as my wife tells me, I have a terrible sense of humor), but whatever it was – it was exactly what I needed – a laugh to make me feel human again.

In talking to current patients in treatment after the event, they shared in the feeling that it was joyous, fun and festive occasion. Hopefully, they too were able to forget about their current situation for a little while.  In particular, I must tell you about Aisha. I recently met Aisha, who not only grew up in the same town that I did, but also the only other person I have met with a central neurocytoma (a troubling coincidence). Our stories are very similar, as our outlooks.  However, I don’t think I’ve ever met a person with such a sunny disposition while facing a trauma like this.  Not only is she full of positivity, but she is by far one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and is quick to make a joke about her situation.  She’s simply fantastic.

I think a good laugh and not taking yourself so seriously does almost every patient well.  We all need some relief and a way to take our minds off of an unfortunate situation that we may be facing.

In a perfect world, there would be no charge, no pill to swallow, nor poke of a needle.  Rather, everyone would be welcome to attend a comedy show, share some laughs and forget about the pain and suffering for a while.  After all, laughter truly is the best medicine.

April Showers Bring May Flowers

I know I’m a few days late, but it’s May and May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month!  For the patients, survivors, caregivers, friends and families, this is our month to be heard, raise awareness and bring a much needed voice to the brain tumor community.

There are some great campaigns taking place during the month and lots of awesome people who are dedicated to raising awareness.  Maybe you’ve heard of various sporting teams wearing “grey” uniforms to show their pride, or perhaps have been involved in or seen flyers for walks being held this month?  These are both wonderful opportunities for the much deserved and appreciated recognition.  I’ve also seen friends on social media posting pictures of themselves in a different grey outfit each day – very cool!  It’s these simple things that bring a smile to my face to know that this cause is so well cared for and there are many individuals and businesses out there trying to make a difference.  Even my dog got in on the party showing off his #beaniesforbraincancer! IMG_1629

All of this got me thinking – what can I do to show my pride and make a statement?  And then it came to me.

As I was sitting in the chair getting my haircut with my barber doing his final touches, I told him it looked good, but asked him if he would buzz the top too.  “Are you sure?” he asked.  I replied, “yes, I’m positive.  It’s brain tumor awareness month and this is my way of showing pride and support.”  As he began buzzing it, a voice piped up from another shaved-head person: “Sorry, but why did you decide to buzz it after getting rid of the old style?”  I explained to him, and the rest of people waiting for the barber that May is brain tumor awareness month and as a survivor, I wanted to do something to show my pride and support.  Looking in the mirror, I saw nods of approval and smiles, and then I was asked whether I would consider one of the barber’s already-shaved head as support of my effort.  I have no shame and I’m not embarrassed to show the world my scars – my battle wounds.  DSC_0402Fortunately, losing my hair is one thing I’ll likely never have to worry about – thanks Mom.

So what are you willing to do for the rest of this month to show your support?  You can wear the grey CTBTA bracelet or purchase Broca’s Area CD to help raise money for the CTBTA.  There are so many ways to get involved and help out, many of which would not require you to leave your couch.  Come on and join the party, you know you want to!

It’s A Beautiful Day

I was sitting at my desk, my mind wandering and racing.  I needed to get out so I took a walk to Starbucks for an afternoon pick-me-up.  When I returned to my office, I looked at my email and there was an email from my doctor – the results were in.

For the first time since 2008, I saw the words I’ve long waited to hear: “There is no more tumor, all is good!”

A deep sigh of relief and a weight off of my shoulders.  This beast has tried and tried to bring me down, but I am far too resilient to allow that.  With an amazing cast of doctors caring for me and my wonderfully supportive family and friends, I can finally say “I am tumor free” since my initial diagnosis in 2008.

This news is just the tip of the iceberg though.  You see, I knew this day would come but I just did not know when.  What I did know however, was that my passion and excitement for this cause was just getting started and today, I had the privilege of being a part of something great…

Stay tuned.  Until then, enjoy a beer or your favorite cocktail tonight – it’s  on me.

 

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Wounds Heal, But Scars Still Remain The Same

As I’m writing this, a flurry of emotions are running through my mind: eager, nervous, anxious, apprehensive, hopeful.  I have my three month MRI next week, my first since having the tumor removed.  And for the past six and a half years, I feel like I have constantly written “in three months, I’ll go back to Yale for my follow up MRI.”

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The aftermath of brain surgery.  January 13, 2015.

Funny thing is, as I wrote that, it finally sunk in that this is my life – while the scars have healed and my hair has grown back, I will endure continuous follow up and MRIs to ensure this beast doesn’t grow back.  Yes, the emotional scar is still there.  I’m a strong person, but I’ve been feeling like the past 6+ years are starting to catch up with me.

Yet, I am still hopeful that now I can move forward and put this chapter of the story in my past.  Hopefully, as long as my MRIs are clear, they will continue to be spread out and the visits to Yale will become less frequent.  I will need to continue monitoring myself for recurrence and the functionality of the shunt indefinitely.

When the topic of recurrence comes up, I wish I had a better response for people, I honestly do.  It is a scary thought that I might have to go through this again someday.   An even scarier thought, is this genetic?  Will my children someday be at risk for developing a brain tumor?  Will the reason that people develop brain tumors in the first place ever be discovered?  I would like to think that, in my lifetime, the answer to this question will be yes, but I cannot be certain.  All of these unknowns lead me to thinking and I find myself wondering about all of the “what ifs” that may someday present themselves and who will answer those questions for me.

A couple of weeks ago, the clinical care coordinator at the Yale Brain Tumor Center announced her retirement – a heartbreaking and total loss.  I felt the void that very moment.  Ever since July 1, 2008, her and I have developed a great relationship.  She was my main source of support while I was in the hospital and during my follow-up appointments.  The times that I had a seizure in my apartment, she was the first call I made.  This got me thinking… what will happen when my surgeon decides to call it quits?  I will need to be restrained by someone because I’ll be down at the hospital pleading with him and begging him not to go.  This man saved my life and I will find it hard to trust any other hands in my brain. When he most recently told me he wanted to operate, it did not take me long to make that decision.  The idea of surgery, with him, is an easy one.

Nevertheless, this whole entire process has been nerve wracking and I cannot even begin to imagine it with another surgeon.  I hope and pray that the tumor is gone for good and that no further surgery will be necessary.

Reality is, no matter how hard I/we, the brain tumor community, tries not to think about all of these questions and dwell on the past, it is easier said than done.  The questions are prevalent and all around us.  No matter where I turn, I hear about brain tumors and brain cancer and it’s a scary thought – but I am a better person because of this experience.  This life experience has taught me about how to live and what truly matters.

So when someone asks me, “now what?” my answer is, to be honest, “I don’t know”.  Nothing seems certain at the moment.  I will remain optimistic though, that’s a given.  While uncertainty seems obvious for someone like me, I remind myself that every moment is uncertain for everyone, regardless of his or her circumstances.

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