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Peter Vaccaro's journey with testicular cancer began in 1998, when he was just 31. Suffering from chronic back pain, Pete underwent an X-ray. "The next thing I knew, my family doctor called to say he needed to see me and my wife in his office. When I insisted he tell me why, he explained that they saw a mass on my abdomen. It looked like cancer. My world literally slowed down. This was completely out of the blue."
Pete and Natalie had been married for just six months and they were expecting their first child.
After local doctors misdiagnosed the tumor as terminal carcinoma, the Vaccaros were frightened. Pete's father-in-law suggested they get a second opinion at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, about 60 miles from their home. Pete credits this decision - and the doctors at Fox Chase - with saving his life.
"I literally called Fox Chase that night and told the woman on the phone that I'd be coming down tomorrow," admitted Pete. "She must have sensed the sense of urgency in my voice and said that while she couldn't promise I'd be seen, I should come anyway." Next Pete called a friend who is a doctor and asked him to interpret some of the numbers on the test results. "He asked for my HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin hormone) level. Normal is between zero and five. My test read 89,000."
"We realized the level of compassion is what differentiates Fox Chase from anywhere else."
At Fox Chase, Pete and Natalie, who was visibly pregnant, were greeted by the receptionist, who did everything in her power to make sure he would be seen that day. Next he met with Gary Hudes, MD, Director of Genitourinary Malignancies, who made time in his schedule for Pete even though he didn't have an appointment. "He was very accommodating," shared Pete. "At that point we realized the level of compassion is what differentiates Fox Chase from anywhere else."
After ordering a few additional tests, Dr. Hudes consulted with several colleagues, including Richard Greenberg, MD, FACS, a urologic surgeon and Carlos Garay, MD, who was doing his fellowship at the time. The tests showed that Pete had testicular cancer that had metastasized, or spread, to the liver and lungs. "Although Natalie and I were devastated, we were relieved to have a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan," Pete recalls. Because his disease was metastatic, Dr. Hudes insisted that Pete start chemotherapy that day.
"I knew if I survived this, I owed my life to Fox Chase."
Pete's team of doctors developed a tailored treatment plan, which began with four cycles of aggressive chemotherapy designed to shrink the tumors. When Pete experienced side effects from treatment at home, he called Dr. Garay, who personally met him at the hospital at 10:00 pm to care for him. "That's when I knew that if I survived this, I owed my life to Fox Chase and I would work to raise money for cancer research," Pete shared. Fortunately, the tumors responded to the treatment, so he was a candidate for surgery to remove the cancer that remained.
Pete's surgery was scheduled on Natalie's due date.
On June 11, 1998 - Natalie's due date - Pete underwent a 10-hour surgical procedure in which Dr. Greenberg removed the lesions on Pete's lungs and liver, along with the residual tumor on his abdomen. "Knowing how concerned I was about Natalie and the baby, Dr. Greenberg worked closely with the nurses on my floor to safely expedite my recovery so that I could be released from the hospital in fewer days than planned" recalled Pete. "On June 15, we drove home from Fox Chase. She literally unpacked the car and announced she was in labor!" He chuckled when he remembered Dr. Greenberg's suggestion that they name the baby Richard.
When the Vaccaros arrived on the maternity floor, nurses quickly arranged for Pete to have his own bed so he wouldn't miss the birth of his son - Peter.
The care and compassion he received from everyone at Fox Chase still resonates with Pete. "The nurses treated me like family, like a son. Nobody had to ask my name or what type of cancer I had - they always knew. I was - and still am - very impressed with Fox Chase Cancer Center."
"What the doctors and staff at Fox Chase did for me is immeasurable."
Today, Pete remains cancer-free. "What the doctors and staff at Fox Chase did for me is immeasurable," he said. "I had the worst case scenario. I truly believe I am alive and well because of my choice to go to Fox Chase and the unbelievable care I received." Inspired by another testicular patient who encouraged him during his treatment, Pete now visits patients when he comes to Fox Chase. "I keep a photo of myself during treatment to show to other men in the same situation I was in. I treasure the opportunity to help others because I know first-hand how important that is."
Pete has also joined the crusade to support cancer research. He formed a team, called For Pete's Sake, to compete in the Dragon Boat Festival, an annual race on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia that benefits Fox Chase's efforts in cancer research.
On the tenth anniversary of his diagnosis, Pete sent the following email to Dr. Hudes:
Gary, 10 years ago today we met at Fox Chase Cancer Center. I was young, scared and out of options. You were young, confident and full of them.
Forever and a day, with gratitude, Pete
... also full of gratitude, Natalie, Peter, Joseph and Isabella
The next morning, Pete opened his email and read Dr. Hudes's reply:
"My life is complete - and I owe it all to Fox Chase."
"Dr. Hudes said all he needed to say," offered Pete, whose mantra has become "Choice, not chance, determines destiny." He has learned to appreciate the little things in life, most notably his three children. "When I walked into Fox Chase in 1998, I wasn't sure if I'd live to see my son. Now I have two sons and a daughter - and a beautiful wife. My life is complete - and I owe it all to Fox Chase."