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Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Catching Up With ‘DJ Carol’

Posted By: Advancing Care
Carol LaChiana
Photos by John Rizzo

By David Levine and Melissa F. Pheterson

DJ Carol doesn’t spin records at dances anymore. At 81, Carol LaChiana has put away her doo-wop oldies and her red tambourine in favor of a quieter but still active life, happy to have survived bouts with bladder and breast cancer and adjusting to a world without the husband she had known since she was 15 and married at 20.

When we profiled LaChiana five years ago, she was traveling to regional party halls from her home in Nanuet. She stopped the music, though, when her husband of 57 years, John, became seriously ill and passed away, in 2019, after having lived for years with Parkinson’s disease. “The worst thing for me was not cancer; it was seeing my husband at the mercy of hospice care,” she says.

Still, LaChiana has managed to stay upbeat and hasn’t lost her scrappy wit. It was during treatment for bladder cancer 15 years ago at Good Samaritan Hospital, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth), that LaChiana had made known her sense of music and humor. After chemotherapy, when lying down and shaking limbs is recommended, she informed staff: “I’m going home to shake, rattle and roll.” The bladder cancer occurred twice (“playing hide-and-seek with me,” she says), in 2007 and 2008. Once in remission, LaChiana turned her attention to caring for her husband.

But in 2017, just after Thanksgiving, LaChiana noticed a lump on her left breast. “Luckily, I had a mammogram the next month.” She returned to Good Samaritan Hospital, where a biopsy confirmed three growths in her breast: two benign, one malignant. “This was the third time cancer found me,” LaChiana says. “At first I thought: Come on, can you give me a break? But I wasn’t going to let it get me down.”

Five years later, she stresses the value of screening, and she encourages every woman to stay current with her mammograms. “I can’t say that enough. It’s so important,” she says. Early detection certainly played a role in her successful treatment and recovery.

Breast-cancer breakthrough

“Carol’s breast cancer was Stage 1 and responsive to anti-estrogen therapy,” says John Rescigno, MD, Director of Radiation Oncology at Good Samaritan Hospital. “She was a good candidate for what we call breast conservation therapy, which allowed her to avoid a mastectomy by having a small excision, followed by radiotherapy.”

Karen Karsif, MD, Medical Director at Good Samaritan Hospital’s Center for Breast Health, performed the lumpectomy. From there, LaChiana’s care team utilized a new, state-of-the-art-machine known as the TrueBeam Linear Accelerator. At the forefront of cancer-fighting technology, this device delivers powerful and precise radiation through high-energy beams, aimed with accuracy to the millimeter.

Dramatically advanced from traditional radiation, the TrueBeam Linear Accelerator system maps the most direct path to cancer cells in tumors, taking deadly aim at its target while skirting healthy tissue. Since arriving at Good Samaritan Hospital, the device has shrunk tumors for hundreds of patients. In LaChiana’s case, it killed any abnormal cells that might have remained in the breast after the surgery.

“Nearly real-time image guidance makes the treatment more precise and accurate,” says Dr. Rescigno. “This allows us to spare healthy tissue, avoid side effects and safely deliver higher doses when needed. In addition, we can decrease the time it takes to treat, which improves patient comfort and outcomes. We are quite privileged to have this technology at our disposal.”

To relieve LaChiana’s anxiety and encourage her humor, the team played 1950s music during treatment. “We laughed together, and it made the treatment less scary,” says Carol.

“I call my doctors, nurses and care team my ‘angels,’” she says. “I couldn’t get over the empathy they showed. It’s not always medicine alone that cures a person who is ill. If you have the heartfelt feeling that they care, from the minute the receptionist greets you, it’s half the battle.”

Dr. Rescigno says his team fosters an environment that focuses on patients. “This includes keeping the patients well-informed and comfortable with the decisions they make and assessing emotional needs as well. We strive to make this difficult time as pleasant as possible under the circumstances.

“I am very proud of the team we have assembled, which collectively has many decades of expertise in radiotherapy,” he adds. “One can have all of the technology in the world, but it is only as good as the people running it.”

Carol LaChiana

Carol LaChiana during her DJ days

High spirits, bright outlook

Throughout her treatment, LaChiana drew beauty and strength from patients and families in the waiting room. “You nod at each other and smile, and then you start talking; that’s when you find out there’s someone with prostate cancer, stomach cancer, colon cancer,” she says. “Everyone is caring for someone else. You forget your troubles for the moment, and you say, ‘Wow.’” LaChiana was so moved by the people she met and connections she made that she’s writing a short story about her experience.

After most treatment sessions, LaChiana drove to see her husband. “I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself,” she says. “I never missed a day — ever.” Living alone has been challenging, but she stays social, lunching with friends and attending dances at a seniors’ club once a month. “At first I thought, I don’t want to be with old people — isn’t that terrible,” she laughs. “We listen to music; it’s a night out; it’s a good time.” And she still loves music. “I got an Alexa in the kitchen; my kids got it for me.” Sinatra, Tony Bennett, her beloved ’50s doo-wop: “I sing and dance once in a while,” she says. And her reputation lives on: “Sometimes people see me in the supermarket and say, ‘It’s DJ Carol!’”

Mostly, she enjoys time with her two children and four grandchildren, most of whom live nearby. She goes by another nickname with them: Grandma Meatballs. “They love my meatballs, and I still love to cook,” she says.

LaChiana continues to visit her doctors for follow-ups on both her cancers, but she has another health issue now: spinal stenosis. “Now, I have a handicapped-parking sticker. That’s your reward when you’re 81,” she jokes. “I’m hanging in there. You take one day at a time.”