Since September, it’s been a pretty darn good year.
That might seem like a strange statement coming from a man who battled cancer and lost his mother and sister during 2012, but it’s how Pinellas County Commission John Morroni sums up his year.
Morroni first learned he had non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the fall of 2008. He spent six months undergoing chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation before he could share the good news that the cancer was gone.
Four years later, during a follow-up CAT scan done the second week in December, he found out the cancer had returned.
“We waited until the day after Christmas not to ruin everyone’s holiday to tell anyone, including my son,” he said.
The only people he told were his wife, Eileen, and his assistant at the time, Scott Kirby.
“I had to tell Scott, so he would know to stop booking all those appointments for me,” he said.
Christmas 2011 wasn’t much fun. Morroni and his wife stayed home from gatherings except for one party hosted by a “good friend.”
“We were really hurting inside,” he said.
Two days after Christmas, Morroni began to share the news and announced it in a press release to the public Dec. 28. At that time, he didn’t know what treatment plans his doctors would recommend. He put forth an optimistic front, knowing he had undergone cancer treatment in the past and could do it again.
But, this time, the treatment required more than just chemotherapy and radiation. Morroni underwent a stem cell transplant and “toxic” chemotherapy. That treatment was more difficult and took longer. It also required a lengthy hospital stay.
“They took all the blood out of my body two times” before they got the number of stem cells his oncologist wanted, he said. He watched as the blood cells collected into a little bag. After the blood cycled in and out and the stem cells were collected, he had to wait to see if they got enough.
“Finally, they got 2.75 million and my doctor said that was close enough,” he said.
He was fortunate. If the count had not been high enough, they would have given him a shot, which costs $5,000, and he would have had to go through the process again three days later.
Morroni spent six days in the hospital undergoing chemo. The doctors put the stem cells they had collected back into his body and followed up with another round of chemotherapy.
When he was released from the hospital, he had to stay in special patient housing provided by the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
“I was back in the hospital two days later for another week,” he said.
Then it was another stay in Moffitt’s patient’s housing.
He said he required 24-hour care due to the loss of platelets.
“If I had tripped and fallen and cut myself I could have bled to death,” he said.
Morroni’s wife took time off work from her job at Morton Plant where she works in the administrative offices.
“Twenty-four hours a day for 30 days, she was a nurse to me,” he said.
He admitted that he wasn’t always a good patient.
“I had good days and bad,” he said. “I couldn’t eat. It was hard to keep even soup down.”
Morroni was released from Moffitt’s care in mid-May. Two weeks later, his mother died.
“June 1, she died in her sleep,” he said. “It was just traumatic. My sister, who was 64, had terminal cancer. She passed away in September. I was close to both of them.”
Morroni, who is 57, said after his mom died, he fell into a bit of a depression, despite having friends and family to provide support.
“Mom died, and I knew my sister was going to die,” he said.
Work is what got him back into life.
“I pushed myself to get back to work,” he said. “It was good coming back and seeing everyone; they were so supportive. People kept saying, ‘We can’t believe you’re here.’ ”
Then “things turned around,” he said. “I started feeling good and was able to finish the year as chair (of the commission).”
Morroni looked healthy when he returned to chair his first commission meeting after treatment. If not for the ball cap on his head, one might not have known about his recent struggles.
Several members of the public who spoke June 26 wished him a fast return to good health. Even those who demanded that he and other long-time commissioners step down due to term limits approved in 1996 expressed warm wishes for Morroni’s health.
Morroni kept the smile on his face for as long as he could. But finally, he lost his patience.
“I don’t want to hear anyone yelling at us – not today,” he told the rowdy crowd.
Always among the peacemakers on the commission, Morroni has not lost patience since that day. He hasn’t made his cancer a big deal either, although sometimes the public still prefaces their remarks with good wishes for his continued good health, especially other cancer survivors.
Words of inspiration
Morroni has a message he wants to get out to “anyone with cancer or any type of disease.”
“A positive mental attitude is important. Having faith is even better,” he said. “I believe in God, which was a big help, along with having family and friends to check on me. I thank God I was able to get through the year.”
Morroni is much more positive than he was this time last year, although he knows that he still has a tumor inside his body. The mass wraps around veins and arteries and cannot safely be removed. Surgery won’t be an option unless his condition becomes a matter of life or death.
Morroni’s doctors are pleased that he “bounced back so quickly,” and he attributes his good health to his recovery.
“I don’t smoke and at the time I was working with a trainer,” he said.
It will be some time before he can return to an exercise program. He still tires easily, but that is getting better as well.
“I can make it through the day without getting tired now,” he said.
He also has to take an anti-viral pill and an anti-bacteria pill until his immune system recovers.
“I’ve been taking them for eight months, so only four months to go now,” he said.
Morroni’s doctors believe the stem cell treatment should keep his cancer in check for a long time.
“Hopefully until I’m at least 80,” he said. “And they’re finding out stuff about stem cell transplants all the time. It’s so exciting and promising. Maybe they’ll find the cure in my lifetime.”
He says knowing the tumor is still there doesn’t really bother him.
“I try not to think about it,” he said. “It’s part of my body like every other part.”
Morroni believes all the things he endured this past year happened for a reason.
“I don’t know what it is yet,” he said. “Maybe volunteer work with cancer patients.”
He said he understands and can help. For example, when he meets people with cancer, he offers his number and tells them to call.
“I let them call me instead of calling them because I know some days you just don’t want to talk to anyone,” he said.
Morroni said it was easy to feel sorry for yourself, but people should remember there are always others going through similar or more difficult situations.
“That horrible tragedy in Connecticut, my heart goes out to those families who lost somebody just before Christmas. People have a lot worse problems than mine. I can’t imagine having your 6-year-old shot to death. We need to keep all those families in our prayers.”
Morroni had a special event he used as a goal through his illness – a friend’s Jan. 20 wedding date. He found out about the wedding in February and told his friend, and himself, that he was going to make it.
“It gave me a goal and that was important,” he said. “Be positive; give yourself a goal to do something by a certain time. It’s mind over body to get well.”
Reflecting back on the year Dec. 20, Morroni said, “It has a happy ending. Things could have gone so different. This year, after September, it’s been a pretty darn good year.”