Tag Archives: brain tumor research

You Get What You Give

Are my eyes deceiving me, or are we really midway through August?  This means I’ve been on the job for a month already, and if the first month as Executive Director has taught me anything, it is that this disease is more prevalent and devastating than I think I ever could have imagined.

While fundraising and relationship building is the fun part of the job, I spend a large portion of my time meeting with the various hospitals and talking with patients and caregivers in need of support, and that is the most rewarding.  As I said when I first began this blog in 2013, I wanted to share my experience to not only meet fellow brain tumor survivors, but to be a source of hope for those who are going through this today.  I have even more admiration for our first Executive Director as I knew the job and duties covered an array of demanding and time-constraining tasks, but every day truly brings something different.

The CTBTA is proud to host the Gray Ribbon Club, a support group for patients and caregivers to meet with us to share our journeys of this disease.  We are not doctors and we are not psychologists.  But we, at the CTBTA, have all lived this disease and turned it into a positive and we want to share that experience.  Our meetings are not held in a sterile, cold hospital, but rather in an inviting setting, such as a coffee shop.  During our meeting last week, tears of both sadness and joy were shed, and nobody should feel wrong or bad about doing that.  I am overjoyed by the progress of our participants.  Witnessing the continued improvement in one particular attendee’s speech and word-finding skills causes the hairs on the back of my neck to rise.  Yet, with each celebratory round of applause, there are those raw moments where we share those dark and scary thoughts that nobody likes to talk about, but in this group, we have all been there.  As another participant shared, this is a daily battle and we need to find the joy in every day and the little things in life.  To this relentless battler – we’re here for you and you should never be afraid to let your guard down amongst us.

In addition to the Gray Ribbon Club, I have enjoyed building a friendship with one particular couple over the past month.  As young, thriving adults, their world was turned upside down when they received the diagnosis.  By a stroke of luck, we first met at a conference in June and exchanged contact information.  Later that month, I was hired in this capacity and we’ve been in constant contact since.  On two separate occasions, we met to simply talk and hopefully, allow them to forget about this hell they’ve been in even for a moment.  This family is tough and they taught me a lesson – “that there is nobody or anything in this world that can or will bring me down.”  You think you had a rough day?  Talk about resilience.

When the phone rings or the email notification chimes, I am there to respond and triage the issue, if need be.  Things that we all too often take for granted – the privilege to drive and get around; the opportunity to work and provide food for your family; our personalities and behavior, etc.  Each journey is different and with the help of our Board, the CTBTA is able to assist and through our patient assistance funds set up through the hospitals, we pride ourselves in offering hope to those in need.

For whatever tomorrow will bring, one thing is for certain – I will go home feeling a sense of pride in helping and working towards our ultimate goal of making Connecticut a center of excellence in brain tumor care.   I really couldn’t ask for anything more.

Kind and Generous

Growing up, I always enjoyed puzzles, despite my short attention span, growing frustrated as I tried to put them together.  As I sit here and write this, the irony sets in as I now view my life as one giant puzzle and slowly but surely, a complete picture is beginning to take shape.

I have my health, happiness and career pretty well set.  There’s a couple of other parts that are still coming together, but I know that’ll be only a matter of time.

As I’ve alluded to a few times, following my surgery in 2015, I was contacted by a resident at Yale who was undertaking a research project to better understand the underlying genetic alterations that cause neurocytoma.  The research lab obtained a portion of my tumor and I agreed to donate a blood sample to allow them to analyze my DNA to look for any genetic markers.

For everyone involved, we all wanted answers on this particular tumor and to immerse ourselves in knowledge about its origins, genetic markers and hopefully, how to treat it at an early stage.

A neurocytoma is a very, very rare tumor, as evidenced by the literature, or the lack thereof of this tumor type.  As such, finding an abundance of these tumors in Connecticut, or across the country, was difficult.

At the outset of the origination of The Cusano Family Brain Tumor Fund, funds were used as seed funding to help propel research efforts forward to an effective treatment of any type of brain tumor.  This past fall, when my family and I made our annual visit to Yale to present the net proceeds for 2017, a proposal was made to us that a portion of the funding be used to complete the study on neurocytoma, which my family and I emphatically agreed to.  Through the use of the funds raised through Brainstormin‘, additional samples would be obtained from around the world to allow researchers to continue to test their hypothesis.

Fast forward to June 18, 2018.  With my family, friends and sponsors at my side, we spent the day at Yale to hear the results of Phase One of this project and tour the research lab of Dr. Murat Gunel.  The day was surreal, as it was such a satisfying moment for all of us to realize the impact our dollars have made and the lives we hope to affect in the future.  It is our collective hope that no other family has to endure what we did and I am beyond thankful to our donors for their support, as well as the doctors and researchers at Yale for their dedication and efforts on this project.  “For your kindness, I’m in debt to you and I never could have come this far without you.”

I invite you to enjoy some photos and the abstract of the study prepared by the Gunel Lab, which you can hear more about on September 14th!

 

With gracious support from the Cusano Family Brain Tumor Fund, the Gunel Lab at Yale University, has begun to comprehensively characterize the genomic features of Neurocytoma, a rare type of brain tumor, that has long been poorly understood.  In addition to the Yale School of Medicine, a large cohort of tumor samples has been collected from other international collaborators, including the University of Bonn Medical School (Germany), University Hospital of Cologne (Germany), Acibadem University School of Medicine (Turkey), Bahcesehir University (Turkey), Pittsburgh University Medical Center, University of California, and the Canada Brain Tumor Repository.  Using unbiased molecular approaches, the Gunel Lab aims to understand the underlying genomic events driving tumorigenesis (formation) in these tumors.  Ultimately, the hope is that these findings will lead to the development of targeted, personalized treatment for Neurocytoma, leading to improved survival and quality of life for these patients.

To this end, the Gunel Lab has used complementary genomic experiments and bioinformatics approaches on a subset of collected samples.  With completion of the first round of experiments, they have successfully identified preliminary clues about the molecular processes driving and causing formation of these tumors.  A second phase of experiments to further understand these mechanisms is planned, with the hope of sharing their findings with the scientific community to facilitate the development of targeted treatments for this disease.  The Gunel Lab is grateful for the generous support from the Cusano Family Brain Tumor Fund, and their supporters, to continue and complete this important work for patients with Neurocytoma.

With your help, we are on the precipice of something great and I am beyond grateful and humbled by every single donor and company that has supported us year after year.  Let’s help the staff at Yale get to the bottom of this by advancing brain tumor research in an effort to ultimately find the cure.

High Hopes

Admittedly, I have been quiet of late – perhaps too quiet.  Fear not, all is good…

First and foremost, for the first time in nine years, May came and went without a visit to Yale for a MRI.  However, I couldn’t stay too far away and these visits were happy ones.   Along with my colleagues from the CT Brain Tumor Alliance, we presented the Yale Brain Tumor Center with a check for $20,000 for patient assistance funds at the Smilow Cancer Center and to support their ongoing brain tumor research. 

My surgeon and I exchanged a hug and a few words and I joked with him that I missed him and wondered if he had erred in not scheduling my MRI.  After years of battling, it felt good to finally share a laugh.

The CTBTA also presented funding to Hartford Hospital, St. Francis and St. Vincent’s and we will be visiting Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and the UCONN Health Center in the near future.

Aside from our check presentations, the CTBTA has been very active of late, and I am delighted to share that we recently added five new members to our Board.  Please join me in congratulating Cheryl Italia, Dan Tapper, Dr. Alexandra Flowers, Aisha Khan and Stephanie Simmons!  We are so lucky to have these five individuals join our mission and work to forge an even stronger alliance!

The CTBTA also supported “A Thoughtful Approach in the Fight Against Brain Tumors: Personalizing Care for the Best Outcomes”, a seminar hosted by the Smilow Brain Tumor Program for patients and caregivers.  Dr. Jennifer Moliterno presented on state-of-the-art neurosurgical approaches to optimize removal of brain tumors, even making inoperable tumors operable and neuro-oncologist, Dr. Zac Corbin provided an overview of clinical trials and treatments post-surgery.

Aside from my work with CTBTA, my family and I are hard at work, planning for another successful Playing for the Cure: Brainstormin’.  The fundraiser is being held on Friday, September 14th at Stony Creek Brewery and we cannot wait for the day to arrive!  A huge THANK YOU to the companies who have already committed as a sponsor and to our many friends and family who are supporting this event again.  We are excited to announce that Heat, Connecticut’s favorite cover band, will be performing this year and Stephen and Parkville Sounds, LLC will be mixing and producing the band!

But the real excitement, at least for me, will be on the night of the event, sharing with you the impact of your dollars on the brain tumor community.  Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with a very rare tumor and I am excited to share that on September 14th, attendees will hear from Dr. Murat Günel, the chair of the Department of Neurosurgery whose team conducted the research on central neurocytoma.

We will be joining Dr. Günel and his team for a presentation of their findings and to tour their lab.  I am excited to hear the findings and to see how this study will help the next patient and family that is diagnosed.  With your support over the past four years, we are making a profound impact on lives and a brain tumor diagnosis.  Stay tuned for an update!

Ten years ago, I was afraid – not knowing what to expect after brain surgery, let alone the subsequent surgeries.  I went from a hopeful lawyer to gaining employment in the non-profit world and do not intend to look back.  When we started this fundraiser five years ago, it was our way of showing gratitude for Yale, brain surgeons, clinicians and nurses all over the world.  Thanks to the unbelievable sponsors and supporters, you gave it new meaning and together, we are closer to making our goal of finding the cure a reality.

Luck Be A Lady

Life is unpredictable.

As my childhood habit of walking around with a briefcase clearly indicated, my career path was assumed from the beginning.  My high school job at a law firm, political science degree from UConn and  admission into law school only solidified my determination.  Well, surprise, surprise.   A brain tumor, a few failed attempts at the bar exam and a new-found interest in fundraising later, I found myself walking out of the law firm I worked at since I was 16 for the last time.

For my readers who do not already know, I recently joined the United Way as a partnership manager in development.  I am grateful to my former employer for taking a chance on me as a junior in high school and grooming me to succeed in anything I set my mind to.  Through my ups and downs and all of the trials and tribulations, they supported and encouraged me.  Who knows though, maybe it was meant to be?

During my first few weeks at the United Way, a lady stopped by and after her second visit, left me literally speechless.  She was not there to give me business or build upon a relationship though; her red and black outfit gave her away, my ladybug was back.  Her first appearance was when my office neighbor walked in and showed me who flew onto her hand – not even knowing my story or the connection.  The next week, there she was again, perfectly propped on the wall.

Immediately, any second thoughts melted away and I knew that this was a sign that I had made the correct move for my career.  Prior to accepting this position, I knew that a career change was necessary and would allow me to fulfill my purpose in life.  But giving up something that I had worked so hard for and that this story is so connected to was difficult.  Yet, her presence in the office gave me the assurance I needed.

The change from the private sector to the nonprofit world has been difficult at times and the road to mastering the skill set I need to succeed will be long and challenging.  However, I am eager to make a philanthropic impact on my community and to simultaneously fine-tune my ability to have a personal impact on the brain tumor community to help all the doctors, researchers and nurses who care for patients.

I have not had the opportunity to meet with the department Chair or the resident overseeing the study on central neurocytoma at Yale, but am eager and excited to see what they have learned.  I am humbled that in 2018, ten years after my diagnosis, a study will be published and a resource available for the next patient diagnosed with this very rare tumor.  Through the Cusano Family Brain Tumor Fund and through the many donations received from my readers, we are funding this important research study and collecting samples from another major university.  Back when I was diagnosed, there was not an abundance of information on this rare tumor.  Gratefully, we are on the brink of making this a reality.

My passion and pursuit to help those in need will not stop here though.  I trust that the skills I develop in my new position will allow me to make a greater impact and give hope for anyone diagnosed or who is facing this dreaded diagnosis.

Everything happens for a reason and I am content with where I am.  Though it took me nine years to come to this realization, I understand and believe that I am not an attorney for a reason and that I got sick so that I can help people.  More than anything though, I thank the ladybug for making her appearances and assuring me that this was the right move and for her continued presence in my life.

I’m On Top Of the World

 

What can I say!  I am humbled and blown away by the outpouring of love and support from so many.  To our Annual and Presenting Sponsors ShelfSpace Marketing, Carla’s Pasta and Specialty Packaging LLC. for making this night the best yet!  A HUGE thanks to Renee DiNino and iHeartRadio for being our emcee and giving us amazing coverage!  A very special thank you to Sullivan & LeShane Public Relations, Inc. and WTNH News 8 for sponsoring and bringing great awareness to this cause.  And while the list is too long, a big thank you to all of our sponsors who made the night possible and enabled us to pull this off.  Thank you Stony Creek Beer for hosting us again and your support during the month of September – you guys are great!

Nine years ago, I never would have thought I would want to talk about brain tumors, let alone that I would find it my passion.  As my doctor told you last night, I am cured of this and now it is my opportunity to give back and aid doctors and researchers find the cure, but to also be a ray of hope for those fighting this battle. Fortunately, we are on our way.

While we are not ready to share an exact dollar amount, I am pleased to share that we shattered last year’s efforts!!  Together, we took another step forward in helping doctors at Yale find the cure and I believe we will see the day.  And if you thought last night was a great time, get ready to celebrate my 10 years of survivorship in 2018!!  Get ready Cusano clan!

Thank you everyone! Check back soon or visit cusanosagainstbraintumors.com.

Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes

Another fun Cusano family vacation to Nantucket is in the books!

Whether it was on the beach, out walking around town, paddle boarding (yes, I did it!) or at Cisco Brewery, I was happy and carefree.  It is great to just wake up with no pressures – no phone calls or emails to respond to, no meetings to attend.  I definitely need to reward myself and take advantage of the time that I am afforded to do this more often.

However, I’d be lying if I did not acknowledge the moments where my mind wandered and I caught myself thinking about the past and the adversity I have overcome to get here.  It wasn’t feelings of sadness or depression, but rather, joy and jubilance.  If you had told me back in 2008 I would be riding a paddle board in the ocean, traversing through massive yachts, I would have told you that you were nuts. For the past nine years, nothing has been perfect – be it law school, the bar exam, seizures, weakness or more surgeries.  Yet, this week was an exception.

All of this made me realize that everything in life is in flux and nothing is permanent.  I watched the waves rush in and then wash out.  Ferries dropped people off and then came back to pick people up to bring them home.  As I sat on the ferry home, I realized that nothing is constant – we cannot bottle up good times and moments to take them home, but we can certainly savor them.

I said it earlier, and I’m saying it again – nothing in life is permanent.  While this may sound negative, it is not because it is reality. Just like life on the island, everything comes and goes.  The good, the bad, you have to just keep paddling.

As I learned at an early age, life is short and should not be taken for granted, so live it up.

Twenty-Four Seven, It’s A Labor of Love

Well friends – the day has come where I can FINALLY share with you the success of Playing for the Cure: Brainstormin’.  The timing is good as the news has been very negative of late, no matter which party you affiliate with.  So let me cut right to the chase and end the anticipation…

Along with my family and friends, we returned to Yale today on a happy occasion.  No MRI, no office visit – instead, we went with a check in hand with the net proceeds and I am ecstatic to share with you that, this year’s donation was $37,250.00!img_1526

As I handed over the check and in my remarks, I had a moment of reflection.  As I told Dr. Piepmeier and his fellow neurosurgeons, as well as the staff at the Yale Brain Tumor Center, but for them and without their support and care for me, as well as the assurances provided to my family, I would not be here and my family would not be giving their time year after year to raise money to support their research efforts.  It truly is a labor of love.  “Its a full time job, the work’s never done.  Twenty-four seven, it’s a labor of love.”

I have said it before, and I’m going to repeat it here.  But for our sponsors and all of those who contributed and helped to make this year such a success, today’s donation never would have been possible.  Thank you again to our sponsors – ShelfSpace Marketing, LLC, Carla’s Pasta, Specialty Packaging, Beirne Wealth Consulting, Edge Technology Services, Stop and Shop, Unitas Club, Sardilli Produce, iHeart Media, Henry, Raymond & Thompson, LLC, Liuzzi Gourmet Food Market, Guida’s Milk and Ice Cream, The Farmer’s Cow, Severance Foods, Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, P.C.,  Blum Shapiro, Al Mac Motors II, Channel 3 and WTNH.  A huge shout out to Stony Creek Brewery for not only working with us to make this event run so smoothly, but for your extremely generous contribution toward the fund.  And to every single person who came out to share in the night and celebrate with us as we raised money to  help find the cure, thank you.

Going into 2016, my goal was $20,000.  But by early June, after the sponsorship letters were sent out and the checks started rolling in, I upped the goal to $25,000.  Yet never did I imagine, or envision, being able to hand over this sum of money, but let me tell you – I am so proud to do so, and cannot express how grateful I am for each and every one of you!

Today, Dr. Piepmeier shared his continued plans for use of this money, and this includes investing this money into various research projects that he hopes will lead to breakthroughs in treatment options, as well genetic testing.

Together, with the support of the Yale Brain Tumor Center and other facilities throughout the world, the cure to brain tumors will be found.  However, until that time, I remain committed to putting together this fundraiser for Yale as a way of saying “thanks” for saving my life and giving me a second chance at living.

I am forever grateful for my family and friends who got me through these dark days and allowed me to pick myself back up and continued on with my life.  But I am also thankful that you have helped me to explore and find my passion, and that is being an active part of the brain tumor community.