Antoinette Di Ciaccio, 49, has many interests. She became curious about wine after moving to Schuyler County in 1997 and living among lush hillsides covered with grapevines.For five-and-a-half years she was the wine club manager at Sheldrake Point Winery on Cayuga Lake, where she discovered that serving wine made from grapes grown by folks she knows is a very satisfying experience. She’s also interested in old houses. Her circa 1918 red brick house in Montour Falls speaks volumes about the artistry of its owners. Lovingly refurbished over the years by Di Ciaccio and her husband, Wayne Perregaux, it is the perfect expression of their shared passion for beautiful surroundings and gracious hospitality. The lovely gardens around the house express one more of her pursuits that evolved into genuine talent.
However, for the past couple of summers Di Ciaccio did not have quite enough energy to tend those lovely gardens, as she turned her attention to other matters. Right before Thanksgiving 2012, she felt a pea-sized lump during a breast self-exam. In early January 2013, she saw her doctor, who referred Di Ciaccio for a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound. She has dense breast tissue, so while the lump did not show up clearly on a mammogram, it did appear on the ultrasound.
One Woman’s Journey with Cancer
Di Ciaccio was referred for a biopsy, which was performed by Cayuga Medical Center radiologist Dr. Anthony Massi in the Women’s Imaging Center at the Convenient Care Center in Ithaca. “I had such a great experience with Dr. Massi, and the nurses who assisted him were wonderful, too,” Di Ciaccio recalls.
“One of the nurses lives here in Schuyler County and I think about her often. She was so comforting and she used touch gently to give me something to focus on.” The biopsy was positive for cancer. The morning after she learned this news, Di Ciaccio received a phone call from Jacqueline Adam, RN, breast care nurse navigator at the Cayuga Cancer Center. “Jackie set things up for me and sat through several different appointments with me and my husband,” says Di Ciaccio. “Nurse navigation was really key. Jackie explained things and I felt there was always someone there for me.”
Like all patients facing cancer, Di Ciaccio felt overwhelmed by the many decisions she had to make. The first of those revolved around surgery. She says her surgeon, Dr. Cory Foster at Surgical Associates of Ithaca, clearly presented all of the treatment options. “Dr. Foster didn’t try to push me in any one direction but she gave me all of the information and she gave me her perspective. I loved having her as my doctor; she’s really on top of things and she was very helpful to me,” says Di Ciaccio. Foster referred Di Ciaccio to medical oncologist Dr. Timothy Bael of Cayuga Hematology Oncology Associates (CHOA) for a consultation the next day. After talking with her doctors, Di Ciaccio chose to have a lumpectomy with sentinel node biopsy.
In meeting with Dr. Foster following surgery, Di Ciaccio learned that the sentinel node (which is the lymph node into which a tumor drains) contained cancer cells. As a result, Foster explained that she had removed about a third of the lymph nodes closest to the tumor and had taken enough breast tissue around the tumor to get a clean, cancer-free margin. Foster also told her that her case would be discussed at the Cayuga Cancer Center’s Tumor Board, held each week at Cayuga Medical Center.
Di Ciaccio met again with Bael following her lumpectomy. “Dr. Bael was amazing and will be forever in my heart,” says Di Ciaccio. Among the options for treatment of her cancer was the removal of the remaining lymph nodes under her arm. However, due to a family history of edema, which is swelling caused by the accumulation of fluid in certain parts of the body, Di Ciaccio was afraid of chronic lymphedema if she had the surgery. She talked with Bael about wanting to get a second opinion, which he encouraged her to do. “Before I went out of town for that appointment, Dr. Bael called me and told me that whatever I decided to do he would support me 100 percent. It was so wonderful that he called; it felt so good to have his support.”
Di Ciaccio chose not to have additional lymph nodes removed but she did go on to have the recommended chemotherapy and radiation therapy at the Cayuga Cancer Center. Dr. Bael and DiCiaccio agreed upon a course of eight treatments over a period of sixteen weeks. “Chemotherapy was difficult but I expected it to be worse than it was,” says Di Ciaccio. “There are no words to describe my chemotherapy nurses [at CHOA],” she says, tearing up. “I feel like I was part of a family there: they were so fun and loving. I looked forward to seeing Kate, Hanna, Jodessia, Jilian, Amy, and Jenn; they do hospitality well and they are very caring. This is clearly not just a job for them.”
Once she finished chemotherapy, Di Ciaccio began radiation therapy with radiation oncologist Dr. John Powell. “Dr. Powell has a very special presence, one that I have never experienced with any other doctor in my entire life,” she says. “When I met with him I was feeling like, here I go again, and dreading it. He looked me in the eye and put me right at ease.” Di Ciaccio had reservations about her radiation therapy and once again considered getting a second opinion. “Dr. Powell took the initiative, contacted the doctor I had seen at Sloan Kettering, and then shared their e-mails with me, which I thought was very unusual. But he wanted me to have all of the data he was looking at, which I really appreciated.”
The Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes has a room right across the hall from the CHOA chemotherapy suite and its volunteers also cover the reception area of the Radiation Oncology Department. “Having their staff and volunteers right there was extremely helpful to me when I was making my decisions,” says Di Ciaccio. “When I left my chemotherapy and radiation treatments it was refreshing to have that personal connection; to see those smiling faces was really special.” In appreciation for their care and support, Di Ciaccio raised $4,000 for the Cancer Resource Center’s Walkathon and 5K in 2o13.
A year after completing her treatment for breast cancer Di Ciaccio is cancer-free and her prognosis is good. But she says the experience of having cancer has changed her. “I’ve learned that just because I am done with treatment, I’m not necessarily done with the experience of cancer. I’m figuring out what comes next and where I go from here.” To help her on that part of her journey, she will be participating in the new Survivorship Program offered through the Cayuga Cancer Center.
“I’m grateful for my life and for my wonderful husband,” says Di Ciaccio, “but in those quiet hours alone, knowing you have cancer can be very frightening. Once I got into my cancer care, I was able to build a whole different kind of family to lean on during my treatment. They were a really good team.”