Love in the time of chemotherapy
Let’s face it. The human colon is not the first body part that comes to mind as Valentine’s Day nears. It’s a holiday for hearts, not intestines.
But the story of Mary and Mike Biaggini’s battle with colon cancer is an account of the love, comfort and support that people offer each other to get through terrible times.
“You ask yourself why do bad things happen to good people,” said Mary Biaggini. “Sometimes you learn that maybe it’s to educate people or to help someone else in need.”
Toward the end of 2000, Mike Biaggini, a lieutenant with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, began experiencing mild abdominal pains, an early symptom of colon cancer that has led to two surgeries, chemotherapy, and for now, a life that is cancer-free and a little less complicated.
“In a sense, the purpose of this is to prewarn others,” Mike Biaggini said. “Take it from somebody who has been through it. We all know our bodies, we know when something’s not right. Don’t mess around with it.”
The Biagginis are way past squeamish when it comes to discussing the colon cancer, the surgery and the follow-up treatment.
As a result of his experience, Biaggini said several deputies and other acquaintances have undergone colonoscopies.
“If I could get someone to get tested because of what I have been through, I would feel like I accomplished something,” he said. “None of this is fun, but you are talking about your life. You are talking about your future.”
What got him to the doctor in late 2000 was a series of excruciating back spasms.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night screaming and in a paralyzed state,” he said.
Biaggini was set to make a trip to Southern California and stopped by his doctor’s office to see if he could get a prescription for the pain. A nurse practitioner talked him into a blood test. After the results were analyzed, doctors wanted to hospitalize him immediately, but he waited until after the trip.
When he came back, he was admitted to Barton-Memorial Hospital for a colonoscopy. That lead to his first surgery in 2001.
Doctors removed 8 inches of colon, the encapsulated tumor and 11 lymph nodes.
The lymph nodes were tested and the results were good, no signs of cancer. He continued with yearly colonoscopies and CAT scans.
But 14 months later, the pain came back.
“In December 2003, I started feeling pain again,” he said. “I didn’t want to believe it, but I recognized the symptoms.”
The colon cancer had metastasized to his liver and there were two tumors.
“My doctor was trying to find an easy way to tell us,” Biaggini recalled. “I said to him, ‘Look, I am the chief deputy coroner for Douglas County and I know when cancer ends up in your liver, you are pretty much screwed.'”
By March 2004, the Biagginis were facing more surgery in San Francisco.
During pre-operative testing, the California doctors came up with a disturbing diagnosis. They told Biaggini they believed he had binary duct cancer which had no cure. They gave him three months to live.
“We were absolutely beside ourselves,” he said. “We went down to the waterfront and cried. What do we tell the kids? What arrangements do we want to make? What do we want to accomplish with the time we have left.”
Informed of the preliminary diagnosis, about a half dozen friends and co-workers from the sheriff’s office and East Fork Justice Court drove from Minden to San Francisco that night to support the couple.
But the next day, more tests supported the original diagnosis of colon cancer and the Biagginis were celebrating.
“We all went to Benihana’s and we’re cheering that it was ‘just’ colon cancer. People thought we were crazy,” Mary Biaggini said.
The bad news was that the doctor couldn’t get to the tumor, so he sent the Biagginis home with a prescription for a powerful drug, Avastin, that had only been approved by the federal government for 30 days.
The drugs did their job – in several months, the smaller tumor all but disappeared and the larger tumor shrunk to the size of the first. But tests still revealed what doctors called “an anomaly” near the site of the first tumor.
Surgery was scheduled for early November. The Biagginis made their annual Christmas family trip to Disneyland a little early with sons Nicholas, 15 and Michael, 3.
Biaggini scheduled two months off work which was no problem because he’s been with the department for 24 years.
County employees donated annual leave time to Mary Biaggini, 37, an East Fork Justice Court clerk, so she could be with her husband during his surgery and recovery.
“People from everywhere were asking, ‘Can we help you?'” Mary said. “A friend of mine told me once if people want to help, let them. We are so thankful to have the people we have in our lives. They pushed us through this. Little do they know that when they said something as simple as ‘We’re thinking of you and we’re praying for you,’ that these little strengths became our stepping stone.”
The anomaly turned out to be scar tissue from the first operation. The tumor was gone. Doctors also removed Biaggini’s gall bladder which had been impaled into the liver by the growths.
“They got in there and the tumor was gone,” Biaggini said. “They couldn’t believe what they saw. The only thing left was scar tissue.”
Even though Biaggini, 50, appears to be cancer-free, doctors continued the chemotherapy. He’s almost through the first course and will start what he hopes is the final 4-week cycle in a few weeks.
Side effects from the combination of four drugs include chills, stomach pains, cramps, acid reflux and diarrhea, Biaggini said.
“The last thing I wanted to do was go through more chemotherapy,” he said. “But I didn’t want to cheat myself out of watching my little guy grow up. He was my catalyst through this whole thing.”
Biaggini said he was on prayer lists in congregations all over the Carson Valley.
“Every time I see someone who told me they were praying for me, I tell them, ‘It worked,'” he said.
People gave him prayer cards and religious medals. One item he keeps with him is a little angel encased in plastic.
“It was given to me by a deputy’s wife who lost a child. She said someone gave it to her during her difficult time and she passed it on to me. When this is over, I am going to pass it on to someone else,” Biaggini said.
— Sheila Gardner can be reached at email@example.com or 782-5121, ext. 214.