Marisa Valentinetti was in nursing school in the fall of 2003 when her mom, Michele Adamo, became sick. Michele had been experiencing significant reflux and indigestion but she did not want to go to the doctor. She was no fan of the medical profession, so she put off going for quite some time. One morning, she decided to check her blood sugar levels with her husband, Al, who is a diabetic. Michele called Marisa and told her that her blood sugar reading was over 300. A normal reading would have been under 100. Marisa was quite concerned and begged her mom to make an appointment with her doctor. Finally, Michele relented and agreed to be seen.
Michele’s physician ordered several blood tests. He called her the next day and told her that she needed to go to the Emergency Room. At the hospital, a number of tests, including an ultrasound and a CT scan, showed that she had something on her pancreas. The doctors could not say with certainty what it was. She was sent for another test called an ERCP which would give the doctors a better idea of what was wrong with her pancreas. Michele was jaundiced at this point, but had no other symptoms beyond indigestion.
The doctors were still not giving Michele an official diagnosis. They placed a stent in her bile duct to alleviate her jaundice. This would prove to be a mistake, however, because after the stent was placed, Michele was ineligible for the MRI that the doctors wanted her to have.
Finally, a surgeon was called in for a consultation. Marisa knew that things must be serious at this point. As a nursing student, she had hoped early on that her mother’s problem was due to something fairly simple, such as gallstones. However, she now suspected that something much more serious was going on. At the end of December, Michele and Marisa met with the surgeon. After reviewing Michele’s information and tests, he told his secretary, “I need to do the surgery on New Year’s Eve.” His secretary reminded him that he was not scheduled to be there over the holiday. The surgeon replied, “I am now.” Marisa and her family knew that Michele was facing a very serious illness.
Michele’s Whipple surgery lasted for 13 hours. The doctor removed a grapefruit-sized tumor from her pancreas. She was finally diagnosed with pancreatic adenocarcinoma. She was hospitalized for 12 days following this major abdominal surgery. Marisa tended to her mom during her hospital stay to make sure that she got the best care possible.
Following surgery, Michele had five weeks of radiation and received 5FU chemotherapy. Despite the difficult surgery and treatments, she recovered fairly well. Gastrointestinal complications are quite common following the Whipple and Michele did suffer from “dumping syndrome” following her surgery. She had to watch her diet carefully to prevent gastric distress. She also suffered with some long-term pain in her back from the radiation. Michele kept a positive outlook despite any lingering effects from her cancer and treatment.
By October of 2006, Michele’s reprieve from pancreatic cancer was over. She had metastasis to the pleural space in her lungs. Marisa had just graduated from nursing school, and suddenly both her mom and her husband, Paul, were in the hospital. Paul had broken his femur at the same time that Michele became ill again. Marisa went to her new job orientation while simultaneously trying to care for her mom and husband.
Michele became very sick very quickly. She had to have a liter of fluid removed from her lung. Unfortunately, the hospital failed to look at her previous CT scan and her care ended up being less than optimal. Michele was given too many pain medications and became nearly died as a result. She had to be given more medication to reverse the pain medication overdose. Marisa was able to catch some of the medical mistakes that were made because of her own background in nursing, but she shudders to think of what might have happened if she had not been there to keep watch over her mom. She encouraged her mom to seek a second opinion elsewhere. Marisa searched for a clinical trial for her mom, but Michele did not meet the inclusion criteria for any of the studies.
Michele spent a final holiday with her family over Thanksgiving. She passed away in December of 2006. Michele left behind Al, her husband of 25 years, her daughter Marisa, her son Alan and a large extended family.
Marisa was still a young woman when her mom passed away. She was devastated to lose her mother at such a young age. Marisa had been very close with her fun-loving mom. She had fought hard to make sure that she got the best care possible. She researched treatment options and clinical trials. Unfortunately, once her pancreatic cancer spread, there was nothing that Marisa could do to save her mother’s life. In time, Marisa would learn that she could do something to help others who were facing the same journey that her mom had faced.
Marisa, now an oncology research nurse, describes herself as having been overweight while growing up. At one point, she weighed over 200 pounds. She played basketball and softball and lost some of the weight, but she never had been a runner. When she was in her 20s, Marisa took up kickboxing to get into shape. In 2014, a friend suggested that they run a half-marathon. Marisa recalls saying, “Are you kidding? We aren’t runners!” Marisa is up for almost any challenge, however, so she and her friend signed up and ran the Brooklyn Half-Marathon together. That first race got Marisa hooked on running.
Marisa’s next inspiration came from a friend and cancer survivor who had completed an Ironman. This friend motivated Marisa and got her thinking about running a marathon. Marisa googled marathons and pancreatic cancer charities and found Project Purple. She decided to sign up to run the Marine Corps Marathon with the Project Purple team. Half-way through her training, she injured her knee. She was unable to get her long runs in during her training cycle, but she continued to swim and kick box while seeing a physical therapist. Marisa completed the Marine Corps Marathon in just over 5 hours and was ecstatic. Her knee hurt during the race, but, more than anything, she wanted to finish the marathon. “I loved running the marathon! It was such an amazing experience. I cried four times while on the course”, “Marisa remembers. Despite being new at fundraising, Marisa raised over $2000 for Project Purple at the Marine Corps Marathon.
Now, Marisa is back running and she will be joining the Project Purple team in Denver. She explains why she wanted to come to run with the team, “I love Project Purple and what they do. My mom was only 48 when she was diagnosed. My chances of being diagnosed are higher because of my family history. There are no great genetic tests at this point. The money that Project Purple raises goes to do so many wonderful things.”
Please support Marisa as she runs to beat pancreatic cancer. You can donate to her Crowdrise fundraiser at the following link: