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In sickness and laughter

Couple maintains sense of humor despite dual cancer diagnoses.

Article Author: Emily Sharpe

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“I’ve pretty much been to every kind of ‘-ologist’ except a gynecologist,” joked Arthur Aglieco.

Diagnosed with liver disease at 23 and a transplant recipient in 2012, 70-year-old Aglieco has seen his fair share of specialists over the years. But when he moved to Florida in 2021 with his wife Rose, 69, neither imagined their combined “-ologist” headcount would go up so quickly – and it had nothing to do with Arthur’s liver. Within two years of relocating, both were diagnosed with cancer.

Because of their age and previous health conditions, the couple knew the importance of having an attentive primary care physician. They found that in Kristie Vu, MD, an internist with Baptist Primary Care.

When cancer returns

In early 2022, when Rose Aglieco began to have pain in her lower pelvic region, Dr. Vu referred her to a gastrointestinal specialist who ordered tests and a CT scan that detected a mass outside of her colon.

“When someone says the word ‘mass,’ that’s all you hear,” said Rose Aglieco. “The rest is just gibberish.”

A biopsy revealed she had recurrent uterine cancer, having already faced the disease in 2019. Aglieco was immediately referred to Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“I was familiar with the MD Anderson Cancer Center name because I had worked for the American Cancer Society,” Aglieco said. “I knew about the tumor board and how each patient’s case was reviewed by a group of doctors.” Her multidisciplinary team of specialists included Lauren Hand, MD, a gynecological oncology surgeon.

A scan revealed small tumors in Aglieco’s colon. She was invited to participate in a clinical trial for patients with recurrent endometrial cancer. The treatment plan included chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

Look good, feel better

When Aglieco lost her hair, she “got hot” instead of letting it get her down. She bought bigger earrings and paid more attention to how she dressed.

“I decided to wear my diagnosis as a badge of honor,” she said. “I took the mentality of ‘look good, feel better.’”

Aglieco finished chemotherapy and continued with immunotherapy until she developed sarcoidosis, an autoimmune inflammatory disease that led to the growth of tiny granulomas (lumps of white blood cells).

Meanwhile, Arthur Aglieco had been by his wife’s side the entire time, including when she was in the hospital with pneumonia. But in March 2023, while Rose was still receiving treatment, he noticed a firm lump in his neck. Dr. Vu sent him for tests that determined he had thyroid cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes.

“Typically, thyroid cancer is slow growing and contained within the thyroid itself,” said head and neck surgical oncologist Erica Mayland, MD. She explained that patients don’t often have symptoms unless they have an aggressive form and have difficulty swallowing or notice hoarseness in their voice. But because it had spread to Aglieco’s neck, Dr. Vu was able to feel a small nodule.

“It just shows how important it is to have a good primary care physician,” Dr. Mayland said.

Surgery is often the best option for thyroid cancer, said Dr. Mayland, who removed Aglieco’s thyroid glands and both lymph nodes and then prescribed a treatment of radioactive iodine.

“It’s a really treatable cancer and he didn’t have an aggressive form. The survival rate is over 90%,” she said.

Although it took Aglieco six months to get full mobility back in his shoulder after surgery, he said his treatment didn’t slow him down.

In remission

Arthur Aglieco is now in remission and takes thyroid hormone medication daily. He will need yearly ultrasounds and blood tests and he continues to be monitored by his original liver transplant doctor in New York and his Jacksonville-area physicians.

Rose Aglieco is also in remission, meaning she has no sign of the disease, but she will need scans several times a year and will have to be monitored indefinitely because she had previously had uterine cancer and it returned.

“We didn’t see either of our diagnoses as a death sentence,” Arthur Aglieco said. “We knew we had the right doctors and were in the right medical network.”

He appreciated how easy it was for all his doctors, even those outside of the Baptist Health network, to access his latest health information thanks to the health system’s use of electronic health records. “Everything is so well connected,” he said.

Rose Aglieco added, “And we’ve had wonderful doctors, physician assistants and nurses. You really feel like everyone is working with you.”

Their most important partner in this journey, however, has been each other. Maintaining a good sense of humor and being there for each other has helped the couple face their health challenges.

“We find that patients do better when they have their loved ones around them, and the Agliecos are just a great support network for each other,” said Dr. Hand.

If you notice a change in your health, make an appointment with your primary care physician. If you don’t have one, call 904.202.4YOU (4968) and a Baptist Health care coordinator will help you find the right provider for you. Or, ask your doctor for a referral to Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center. Through its relationship with MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, patients in Jacksonville have access to cancer treatments that are among the most advanced in the nation.

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