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Patient Stories

A Drive to Survive
By Healthy Life 2009 Winter

Born and raised in Lynnfield, 68-year-old Sylvia Venuti has a passion for making what is old, new again. Her father was the proud owner of Lynnfield’s oldest gas station, Perley Burrill, for more than 65 years. Venuti spent many years helping out at the gas station, which explains her love for restoring vintage automobiles. A big part of the hobby includes traveling around the country to classic car shows—a pleasure that came to a sudden halt in December 2005 after a visit to her doctor.
“I was just going in for a regular checkup,” explained Venuti. “I felt great, and I never expected a diagnosis like this.” Venuti’s primary care physician, NSMC’s Elysia Griswold,M.D., noticed that Venuti’s glands were swollen and red. After a dose of antibiotics didn’t clear things up, Dr. Griswold referred her to Charles Leidner,M.D., an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist at NSMC.
A cancer diagnosis has physical consequences, but can also affect emotions, relationships, work, body image and stress levels. NSMC provides a variety of professionally led peer support groups to help patients learn more about their diseases and treatments, and promote both physical and emotional healing. Patients share common concerns, learn coping techniques and strengthen their ability to adjust to life with cancer.
“He took one look at my throat and said, ‘Sylvia, there’s a chance you might have tonsil cancer. We need to do a biopsy right away to find out for sure.’ I didn’t know how to react,” said Venuti. “I didn’t have any symptoms.” The symptoms of tonsil cancer can vary from a persistent sore throat and severe ear pain to bad breath and blood in the saliva, says Dr. Leidner. “As I examined the inside of Sylvia’s mouth and back of her throat, I noticed a golf ball-sized tumor on one of her tonsils,” explained Dr. Leidner. “Then I examined her ears, nose, throat and neck to see if the tumor had spread, which it had not.”
Dr. Leidner sent her immediately to the NSMC Cancer Center, where she met with James McIntyre, M.D., the chair of radiation oncology. “Luckily, Mrs. Venuti’s cancer was isolated to her tonsils, so we could treat it with radiation, and avoid surgery,” said Dr. McIntyre. “Dr. McIntyre told me that I was going to hate him for a while, because the treatment and its aftermath were going to hurt,” says Venuti. “But the reality is, we became friends. The staff at the Cancer Center got me through everything.”
In February 2006, Venuti started treatment with 24 double doses and 18 single doses of radiation over two months, in addition to chemotherapy. While the treatments were painful, Venuti says the six months following were the really hard part.“I didn’t leave the house for six months. I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t eat and I lost my voice,” said Venuti. “One of my greatest joys has always been cooking, so I tried hard to save up my energy for that. I would sleep most of the day, and then get up late in the afternoon to make dinner for my husband. It was all I could do, but it was important to maintain part of my routine.”
Venuti knew that to get through the ordeal, she would need additional support and be armed with as much information as she could get. She joined the NSMC Cancer Center’s Head and Neck Cancer Support Group. The group meets every Tuesday night to talk about all the treatments, side effects and emotional things they’re experiencing. “My support group enabled me to hear and ask questions about all the things that were going to happen, before they happened. It makes it a little easier when you know what’s coming,” said Venuti. Cancer free for nearly three years now, Venuti has participated in the NSMC CancerWALK, and even takes her story on the road. She says meeting people at car shows and sharing her story is now her ‘calling’ in life. “You wouldn’t believe how many cancer survivors are out there.”