David Caldarella’s cancer journey began in 2010 when a lump in the right side of his neck brought him to an ENT in New Jersey. Upon a biopsy, David was diagnosed with Stage IV Head & Neck, or Oropharyngeal Cancer and referred to Dr. David Cognetti, Co-Director of the Jefferson Center for Head and Neck Surgery.
“From my first consult with Dr. Cognetti I was made to feel comfortable and at peace even though my prognosis was grim,” said David. Despite living a relatively healthy lifestyle and never having smoked, he was facing an aggressive form of cancer – squamous cell carcinoma – which had metastasized from his tonsils to the lymph nodes on the right side of his neck and down his throat.
“Although David’s battle would be uphill, I was confident we had an excellent shot at positive results,” said Dr. Cognetti. “His overall health was good, and we had the skills here at Jefferson to give him the best possible chance of surviving this.”
David decided to proceed with all of his treatments at Jefferson with a team including oncologist Dr. Rita Axelrod, radiation oncologists Dr. Peter Ahn (who has since left TJUH) and Dr. Pramila Rani Anne.
“The doctors were always keeping in contact with me and the nurses and technicians responsible for carrying out my treatments were some of the most amazing people I have ever met in my life,” said David. “I’m positive I would not be here had it not been for my care team at Jefferson!”
On May 12, 2010, Dr. Cognetti performed Transoral Robotic Surgery, also know as TORS, using the DaVinci surgical system. “TORS has many advantages,” said Dr. Cognetti, who is one of the most experienced in the country in this method. “For the surgeon it means better access and visualization of tough to reach places in the throat. For the patient it is a shorter hospitalization and quicker recovery.”
After surgery came radiation and chemotherapy. “I spent many of those days and nights hospitalized with side-effects from the treatments,” said David. He spent four months on a feeding tube and lost a total of 65lbs. Through it all, David’s faith, friends and family were by his side, and he never gave up. In the end, David is doing great and is nearing the 5 – year anniversary of the completion of his cancer treatment.
David’s experience led him to create David’s Dream & Believe Cancer Foundation, which raises funds to provide financial assistance and services to families, primarily in New Jersey, affected by a cancer diagnosis. Working on creating the Foundation gave David an outlet, and helped him create a legacy for his two nieces and nephew. “I was going to do everything in my power to beat this diagnosis and live to help others battling a cancer diagnosis.” The foundation has assisted 373 patients and their families since its founding in 2011.
This year, thanks to a submission by Dr. Axelrod, David was selected as a patient advocate at the National Cancer Institute and was appointed to serve on the Head & Neck Steering Committee and the Patient Advocate Steering Committee.
“I’m honored to represent those cancer patients currently in the midst of their diagnosis and be the voice for those that have lost their courageous fight with this deadly disease!”