By Joseph D’Andrea
Over 1,200 cancer survivors, medical professionals and others attended Northwell Health’s 16th annual Don Monti Cancer Survivors Day celebration at R.J. Zuckerberg Cancer Center in Lake Success Saturday.
At Northwell’s largest community outreach event encompassing all its cancer centers, two Long Island-based cancer survivors were invited to take part in the gathering.
Billy Joel’s original saxophonist, Richie Cannata, performed “New York State of Mind” for the crowd, and comedian John Ziegler gave keynote remarks, elevating the situation many including the two performers once found or still find themselves in, through humor.
Cannata was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2017 and Ziegler was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2021. Both spoke of their experiences during hospitalization, their paths to recovery and why they believe raising awareness and encouraging cancer research is important.
Recounting the six months of treatment he received at Northwell’s North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, Cannata described what motivated him to push forward in his rehabilitation.
“[Being impaired due to cancer] was an easy way to check out and say, ‘OK, I’ve been around the world 20, 30 times, I’ve played great venues, I’ve brought my family to wonderful places, I made some great music,’” Cannata told Blank Slate Media. “But there was something inside of me — which was God — that said I wasn’t done. That put me in another gear, where I wanted to now prove to myself that I can get better.”
He elaborated on his eight-year-long path to recovery: “Getting better was, for me, re-learning how to snap my fingers, write my name and play the saxophone again. I made a vow to my wife, Charlene, and my sister-in-law that I would play again. And that being such a strong force for me had me continue the chemotherapy, physical therapy and the hard work of getting back on my feet again and walking.”
Caroline Monti Saladino, president of the Don Monti Memorial Research Foundation, talked about her personal connection to the cause.
“You know, it’s hope, that’s the word,” she said. “[Today is] really a victory celebration, and it’s in my late brother’s name, who died when he was 16 of acute myeloid leukemia. But that was 52 years ago, and back then chemotherapy was primitive and bone marrow transplants were in more of a testing stage.”
Saladino explained that following her brother’s death, her family became involved with Northwell in their Cold Spring Harbor research labs, as well as raising specific designated funds for the transplant program and helping to organize events such as Cancer Survivors Day.
“We do parties for the patients periodically,” she continued, “and when you look around at all the people during this event, you’ll say, ‘Wow, they look happy.’ I think they need that, to be together, and some of them have been coming back for many, many years. It’s a hopeful event, that’s the whole point.”
Dr. Richard Barakat, physician-in-chief and director of Cancer Services and Research at Northwell Health Cancer Institute, expressed how crucial the work of doctors, nurses and caretakers is to creating a safe environment for patients.
“I think what makes us such a great health-care system is the culture here, which is incredible,” he said. “I think it stems from the top, the leadership of Michael Dowling. It’s such an inclusive culture that focuses on the [patients’] voices and well-being. I think that when you have satisfied and engaged employees, patients pick up on that.”
Barakat explained that Northwell is rated one of the best places to work in health care in the United States, the No. 1 health-care system by diversity and the largest private employer in New York with 83,000 employees.
Through ongoing philanthropic support, Northwell’s surpassing of its $1 billion capital campaign and the revenue generated by the system made up of 21 hospitals, the health care provider will be expanding.
“As a not-for-profit, we pour that money back into the system,” Barakat said. “Since cancer is so prevalent and important, I’ve been blessed that the health-care system is putting half a billion dollars into cancer in the next three years.”
Barakat said that Northwell is building the first cancer center in Queens, which is opening this year, and a brand new cancer center on Staten Island, opening in the fourth quarter of 2023. Barakat noted the benefits of being treated locally, especially in Queens, which has the most ethnically diverse population in the world.
“The combination of being treated locally, being treated by people that are like you, by having a very diverse staff and faculty providing cutting edge care right in your backyard, I think that’s what makes the difference,” he said. “When you remove that stress of driving and paying for parking, I think that that does wonders for patients, and I think that’s why we’re growing and succeeding.”
During the celebration, the Tita and Joseph Monti-Vincent Vinciguerra Award in Patient Care was presented to Dr. Ruthee-Lu Bayer, Northwell Health Cancer Institute’s system head of stem cell transplant and cellular therapy treatment and the lab.
Saladino and Dr. Vincent Vinciguerra co-presented the award. Vinciguerra specializes in treating gastrointestinal cancers and breast cancer, is the principal investigator for the National Cancer Institute and had treated Don Monti at NSUH when he was a medical resident.