My name is Steve Furnari and, like many of you, I am happy and proud to say I am a cancer survivor of 22 years! I was only 39 years old when I was first diagnosed in 1994. I was never really sick before that. I knew very little about cancer. My doctor told me I had Stage IV Malignant Melanoma. I was so naive then – I asked him what was Stage 5? He said, there is no Stage 5 – you are in a box in the ground – that’s Stage 5. I was devastated; I really did not know what to do. He told my wife I had 6 months to live, and to get our affairs in order.
My family was a great help, but at this point I knew I needed much more help. Living in Agoura Hills, I must have driven by Cancer Support Community 100 times, never knowing what it really was. Little did I know this would be by sanctuary for the next 10 years. My dear wife Karen first told me about the Cancer Support Community, as she had done some fundraising for them through the Rotary Club of Thousand Oaks. She said they had a lot to offer me. I said, okay, but how much is this going to cost me? It’s all free!
I came to Orientation and three days later I was in a participant group, and I would be in this awesome group for the next eight years. What a relief it was to be among these wonderful souls that were going through the exact same thing I was, had the same fears and questions. This was my tribe. Although we did not choose to be in this club, we were happy to be in it together.
The Internet had nothing for us back then, just some sad facts and bad statistics. But not us, we had great hope! We talked about everything and we learned from each other. Everyone knew something that someone else did not know. We discussed who were the best doctors, where the best hospitals were, the newest treatments and side effects, the most helpful clinical trials, how to deal with insurance companies, get prescriptions, exercise, yoga, meditation …. on and on. Most of it right here and for free, and if not, we knew where to go and how to get there. We finally realized the more tools we had in our arsenal, the more successful we would be.
I did well from 1994 to 1998. Then a PET scan revealed my cancer had spread to my lung. I had to have an entire lobe removed from my left lung. It was a brutal 8-hour surgery. I woke up in ICU with a collapsed lung and on a respirator. It was a very hard road back, but I made it. A month later I was back to work and back to my group here. Then one year later, the cancer had spread to the other lung. I could not believe I had to go through the same damn thing all over again. But I got so much support from my group – it was inspiring.
I must say I was very depressed after my second surgery – and then found out, three months later, I had another small mass in my lung. They said, No more surgery for you Steve. I would not be able to breathe on my own. So, I continued in a clinical trial at St. John’s in Santa Monica. There were over 100 Stage IV Melanoma patients involved in this trial and after 2 years, there were only 4 of us left. I asked my doctor, Donald Morton, Head of the John Wayne Cancer Institute, “Why me? Why am I doing so well”? I never forgot his answer, “Stephen, I don’t know what you are doing, but whatever it is, PLEASE keep doing it.” That’s when I knew that the Cancer Support Community was my secret weapon. In our sessions, our facilitator, Joyce, always said, “there is a lot of wisdom in this room”, and I must say there truly was. We would always end the session with a group hug. I loved that and I miss that. We were just ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and we rose to the occasion.
I came to realize we all shared a few common traits and this was my observation:
#1- A positive attitude (although this was difficult at times, it was always present).
#2 – A good sense of humor! My wife was present next door in the Friends and Family group and often asked “Why are you guys always laughing?”
#3 – A great sense of Gratitude! Every day was a gift and we treated it as so.
#4 – Some type of spirituality – Be it an organized religion, prayer, meditation, a higher power – something was present for all.
Last, but not least, a great team of doctors, caregivers, health care providers and of course, the Cancer Support Community. All of these together formed successes. It was the synergy of everything working together.
In closing, some of you might ask, “Did we lose some dear friends along the way?” We sure did, and that was the hardest part. It was very, very sad. But I truly believe everyone was happier that we’re on this journey together than alone. So you can all do me a big favor, and please stay well, my friends. Carry on and fight the good fight!
Thank you all so much – I wish you all the best – God Bless!