As a State Supreme Court Judge, Hon. Joseph D. Valentino was known for his humanity when working with people often facing the most challenging time of their lives. When he faced a major challenge in his own in life – a melanoma recurrence – he sought that same humanity, and he found it through his team at Wilmot Cancer Institute and the people in his life who’ve supported him.
At Christmastime in 2018, Joseph came down with a cough. He thought it was just a sinus problem but when pinkish mucus showed with the coughing, he went to his doctor and learned the bad news. He had melanoma on his lung. It was his second melanoma diagnosis, having had melanoma removed from his head years before.
Joseph set up an appointment with Carolyn Jones, M.D., a thoracic surgeon with Wilmot Cancer Institute. He was glad he made that choice.
“I liked her from the beginning,” he says. “She was very nice, very intelligent. She exuded confidence.”
Joseph’s treatment started with surgery, a particular challenge since the tumor rested close to his heart and esophagus. The five-hour operation went well, but recovery wasn’t easy, even with support from his nurses on the seventh floor of Strong Memorial Hospital.
“I had two tubes coming out of my lungs in my back, an epidural, a catheter. I looked like one of those blimps in the Macy’s Day parade,” he jokingly recalls.
In addition to the mass in his lung, Joseph had a tiny spot, about the size of a BB, between his skull and his brain. His team couldn’t tell from the imaging if it was cancerous, so they removed it just in case. With Michael Milano, M.D., Ph.D., a radiation oncologist, Joseph had stereotactic radiosurgery, which meant that instead of radiating his entire brain, they used an arc of seven lasers to concentrate on the one spot Joseph had. For about 15 to 20 minutes, he remembers seeing a lot of light and movement of the machine overhead. About 15 minutes later, they came in, took off his mask and he was done.
“That was it,” he says. “There was no anesthesia, no cutting, nothing.”
After those two phases of Joseph’s treatment, his medical oncologist, Deepak Sahasrabudhe, M.D., recommended immunotherapy to try to eliminate any residual cancer that could still be present. In February 2019, he started pembrolizumab – a treatment officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration that same month. Each month, he receives an infusion of the treatment, which works by strengthening the immune system to be able to attack cancer cells.
“If there’s anything else running around in there, I hope it gets it,” he says of the treatment.
He’ll keep coming to Wilmot once a month until he’s had a year’s worth. It will be a challenge, but he keeps busy despite his monthly infusions. He and his wife spend time with their children and nine grandchildren. They travel when they can, and Joseph volunteers his legal expertise on the board of directors for Lollypop Farm, helping the Humane Society address animal abuse cases. He also sometimes serves as a legal analyst locally with Channels 9 and 10.
Through it all, the support Joseph received from his team, his family and friends meant so much.
“A lot of friends would come over and bring food, and I had more candy than I’ve had in around 20 years,” he jokes. “I had a lot of support. A lot of people calling. A lot of the judges I worked with who were in a similar predicament gave me words of advice.”
So far, the side effects have been minimal. Joseph feels a bit nauseous shortly after the treatment, but then it goes away. He also experiences some itchiness and a little bit of diarrhea, but despite that, he’s grateful.
“I’m very fortunate that my body has been able to handle it so far,” he says.