The last three years have taught Andrew and Amy Casciani a lot about strength and courage.
Andrew was only 19 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma in May 2003, his mother, Amy, recently told the Catholic Courier. Andrew was active teen; he played soccer, took classes at Monroe Community College and worked construction with his father, Sabatino. It was while he was at work with his father that he first found the lump on his neck, near his collarbone.
Andrew went to the doctor and, after two weeks of rigorous testing, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, which is a form of lymphoma, or cancer of the lymph nodes.
“There was a really big tumor in my chest, so it was pressing up against my heart,” said Andrew, who with his family belongs to St. Patrick Parish in Macedon.
He began chemotherapy immediately after being diagnosed. Although his life had changed radically in the short space of two weeks, Andrew had been feeling sick for much longer than that.
“I kind of felt sick for a good four months before that. I would have chest pains, and at night I would have night sweats,” he said.
Until he found the lump, Andrew’s doctor and the Cascianis had assumed he had pneumonia because he had trouble breathing, Amy said. She said she later learned that lymphoma is actually not that rare in people between the ages of 15 and 35, but it’s a tricky disease to diagnose.
“You don’t have a whole lot of symptoms. You just kind of don’t feel quite right, like you just have a flu,” she said.
While Andrew underwent nine months of chemotherapy and one month of radiation, Amy said she learned just how strong her son and her whole family actually are. Andrew didn’t drop out of school when he was diagnosed with cancer. Instead, he continued taking 12 credit hours at Monroe Community College even though his treatments made him sick.
“I’d go to class in the morning, and then right after that my mom would pick me up and we’d go to treatment,” Andrew said. “I’d get sick every time I’d go in for treatment. It was kind of traumatizing.”
Instead of dwelling on his sickness or wallowing in self-pity, however, Andrew found a positive way to focus his energy on something constructive. Andrew had always been interested in welding and had taken a welding class just for fun shortly before he got sick, his mother said. After he was diagnosed with lymphoma, he began building a go-cart.
“My parents bought me a welder when I was first diagnosed, to channel the stress. It gave me something to focus on, to keep my mind off the treatments,” Andrew said.
“It distracted him. I think that’s what helped him get through his treatments. It was good therapy for him,” Amy added.
Coincidentally, Andrew finished the go-cart the same day he also received his last treatment, she noted.
Although the experience was harrowing, the Cascianis have been able to bring some positive things out of Andrew’s struggle with lymphoma. Andrew said he now values things more and doesn’t take anything for granted. The experience has matured him, his mother agreed.
“He’s learned a lot about his strengths and his ability to carry on no matter what,” Amy said.
The experience also has taught Amy a few lessons, as well.
“I’ve always kind of tried to … do the right thing, but now I see that it’s really important to value people and to value every day for the moment,” she said. “You can plan, plan, plan, and then something happens and your plans are not where they belong.”
The community was very supportive of the Casciani family while they were dealing with Andrew’s illness. His teachers were very understanding, and all the nurses and hospital staff did their best to make him comfortable, Andrew said. When Andrew recovered after his treatments, the Cascianis decided they wanted to do something to give back to the community that had been so good to them.
They soon decided to organize an annual fundraiser — called the Turquoise Gala — for the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center. The Cascianis named the gala after the gemstone turquoise because the stone is sometimes referred to as an “earth stone” and often represents strength, Amy said.
“Our theme for the event is strength and courage, because I saw how my son handled his cancer. We tried to find something that signified strength,” said Amy, whose entire immediate family contributes to the event in some way.
Amy hopes the event will raise awareness about lymphoma and show cancer patients that there are people out there who care about them and want to help them. Hopefully, the proceeds from the annual event will be used to help ease cancer patients’ suffering and “support the cancer center so they can do what they’ve got to do and find a cure for cancer,” Andrew said.
The first Turquoise Gala was held in November 2004 and included a dinner, a silent auction, an inspirational talk by a guest speaker and the presentation of an award, Amy said. Andrew designed and created the Stone of Life Award, which is presented each year to someone who has been challenged by lymphoma but has had a positive effect on another’s life.
At the inaugural gala the first Stone of Life Award was presented posthumously to Dierdre “Dee” Happell, who taught Andrew in high school and passed away in 2004 after struggling with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Happell helped Andrew through his first chemotherapy treatment and was a supportive teacher who went the extra mile to help her students, Amy and Andrew said.
In its first year the gala raised $14,000 for the cancer center, and it’s grown each year since, Amy said. In 2005 the gala raised $18,000, and the most recent Turquoise Gala, which was held Nov. 4, brought in about $23,000, she said.