After witnessing her father’s rapidly declining health for more than a year, a determined daughter steps in to help a mesothelioma patient find life-changing medical care
Karen D’Alessandro faced her worst nightmare in 2021 when her father, Gene V. D’Alessandro, was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, one of the rarest and deadliest forms of cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Originally complaining of physical pains, the U.S. Army veteran was under the impression that his immense discomfort was associated with gout — a type of inflammatory arthritis that causes tenderness and severe joint pain.
Over the year-and-a-half following his mesothelioma diagnosis, Karen’s father was losing weight dramatically. To manage bloating and fluid buildup in his stomach, he was meeting regularly with his local oncologist — whose only suggested solution, despite Karen’s long list of research-based questions and concerns, was chemotherapy.
“My father is not the type of person to cause problems or pursue confrontations with anyone,” she reveals. “But I am the opposite. If I see a problem, I tackle it head-on. That’s why I started fighting on his behalf from the beginning of his diagnosis.”
When Karen contacted the local oncologist to inquire about any special dietary restrictions or recommendations to help with Gene’s health issues, the New Jersey native was told that her father could eat whatever he wanted because nothing has been scientifically proven in this regard one way or the other.
Karen was left surprised by this reaction. Feeling dismissed and wary, she could somehow sense that this doctor was not as professionally or ethically invested in saving her father’s life as her family had hoped.
“Only seeing a local oncologist for a long time was a mistake,” admits Karen, who now advocates for mesothelioma patients to immediately visit a specialist with advanced knowledge of this particular disease.
“Mesothelioma specialists are the only doctors who can provide the public with the right education and information about this form of cancer.”
“For over a year, my dad’s health kept getting worse. We thought he was going to die within the next six months,” recalls Karen. “That’s when I started looking around for a doctor who focuses primarily on mesothelioma.”
Locating the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in nearby New Brunswick was a relief for the family, offering them a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak situation.
There they met with Dr. Henry Richard Alexander, an internationally recognized surgical oncologist with extensive experience treating peritoneal mesothelioma.
“It is crucial to see a mesothelioma specialist. No one else will know how to help you properly or effectively. Your regular doctor might say you have six months to live, but a specialist will have more accurate information.”
During their meeting with Dr. Alexander, the family discovered that in addition to chemotherapy, Gene was eligible for immunotherapy — a key piece of information that no one had ever mentioned before.
“Dr. Alexander gave us hope by prescribing cancer medications. I didn’t realize that there are drugs that can act as life-savers for mesothelioma patients.”
Within a week, Karen’s father started his new regimen of taking nivolumab, a prescription medication sold under the brand name OPDIVO® that helps the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells.
“Everything got better with this medication. Dr. Alexander saved my father’s life,” shares Karen. “I wish we had accessed this level of expertise from the start so that my family wouldn’t have been so distressed and depressed, thinking my father was going to die soon.”
Karen’s involvement in her father’s mesothelioma treatment is a shining example of the importance of patient advocacy. Without her dedication and resolve, her father might have still been experiencing significant weight loss, severe bloating, and a slew of other symptoms.
In addition to finding him a mesothelioma specialist, Karen also encouraged her father to seek legal help. In 2022, she helped Gene successfully file a trust fund claim against the manufacturers of asbestos-based products that caused his cancer.
He is now able to benefit from the monthly compensation he deserves.
“You must go to a reputable law firm. If your loved one is a veteran, make sure the law firm has a lawyer who specializes in dealing with veterans’ cases.”
To promote her own emotional healing, Karen has joined several mesothelioma support groups on social media, where she has been able to connect with other families experiencing similar turmoil. She also reads self-help books to gain a better understanding of her situation.
With a new outlook on her father’s future, Karen finds comfort in knowing that she did everything she could to assist him at a time when he was the most vulnerable.
“My father is still a blast to hang out with and he loves to have fun,” she says. “He always tells us that he is going to outlive us all.”