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Courage through crisis: One couple's journey through cancer

Health care success stories told by the people who lived them


Courage through crisis: One couple's journey through cancer

Gil and MaryElise Cervelli

Gil and MaryElise Cervelli

Gil Cervelli had scarcely slept for weeks – and not at all in bed. Night after night, his abdomen hurt whenever he tried to lie down. Sitting up in a rocking chair was the only way he could rest.

The UnitedHealthcare member from Milwaukee also began to have severe constipation. At first, Gil's doctors thought his symptoms might be related to a recent back injury.

But, the pain worsened over the next weeks. And, on a Saturday in February 2011, Gil was in such agonizing pain that his wife, MaryElise, insisted he go to the emergency room.

"I said, 'Let's go,'" MaryElise recalls. "I was just crazed because of the pain he was in."

A CT scan revealed the trouble. "There were tumors throughout my abdomen," Gil says.

Later, a biopsy confirmed what doctors suspected: Gil had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymph system. Some lymphomas grow slowly – others can spread quickly.

Facing it together

The news of Gil's cancer hit hard. At first, MaryElise says, she felt both fear and anger. But, along with these painful emotions, something comforting kept coming to her mind: the strength they shared as a couple.

"We're going to do this," she recalls thinking. "Gil and I have always been that way with one another."

And, right from the beginning, the couple said they also found an ally in UnitedHealthcare.

Shortly after Gil's diagnosis, MaryElise realized she hadn't checked with their insurer about coverage. Through tears, she says, she called and "blurted out what was going on."

Right away she received assurances that UnitedHealthcare would be in their corner. "It just put my mind at such ease," she says. "And, Gil was in no position to be worrying about that."

Aggressive, lifesaving treatment

There are different forms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Some respond better to treatment than others. In fact, some types can be essentially cured.

But, the Cervellis learned that Gil had a serious and complicated form. He was referred to oncology specialists, who told him that he would need an aggressive treatment approach for a chance at a successful recovery.

In the spring of 2011, Gil began a grueling chemotherapy schedule. His first treatment lasted 26 hours. But, that was just the start. He had an additional five rounds of high-dose chemo – each lasting 106 continuous hours.

Throughout it all, MaryElise was by his side. "I fully intended to camp out," she says.

MaryElise was also Gil's caregiver during the outpatient stem cell transplant that followed. Gil's doctors recommended this therapy as part of his recovery. It would replace the blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment.

And, according to the Cervellis, UnitedHealthcare also helped make the coverage for the stem cell transplant hassle-free. "That certainly took a lot of pressure off," Gil says.

The transplant occurred over several days. Stem cells – which had been collected from Gil earlier and stored – were put back in his blood through an IV.

But, even with the treatment behind them, the next part of the journey for the Cervellis was anything but easy. Gil's immune defenses would need time to rebuild, which meant he was on "house arrest," MaryElise says. And, he needed other strict precautions to avoid a dangerous infection. For example, he was told to avoid certain foods. Visitors were discouraged, too. Gil left the house only for daily trips to the hospital for blood work, transfusions as needed and visits with his oncologist.

Another caring connection

Gil's treatment and recovery were long and trying, but the Cervellis say they never felt alone. In addition to the excellent medical care they received, Gil and MaryElise praise the support that came from so many sources – including calls from a UnitedHealthcare cancer support nurse.

The first of those monthly calls came shortly after Gil's diagnosis. "If you have a question, don't hesitate to call," the nurse offered. At first, Gil was hesitant to open up about such a personal experience. "But, we talked every month," he says.

Among other things, the nurse would call to check on how things were going with Gil's treatments and how he felt about his care. "She really was concerned about his well-being," MaryElise says.

In time, he began to let his guard down. "We would talk about what I had been through and what was to come," he says. For instance, the nurse was a source of information and reassurance when Gil experienced nerve complications (neuropathy) as a side effect of the treatment.

For Gil, those discussions with his nurse also offered hope. "It gave me an opportunity to confirm that I was going to make it through this journey," he says.

'Every day is a gift'

In November 2011, Gil's doctor allowed him to return to work as a bus driver for the county – because the news was good: His 3-month PET scan had shown no signs of cancer.

Looking back on the journey now, Gil says he realizes just how much support he received from family, friends and co-workers. "It was tremendous," he says.

"Every day is a gift," his wife adds. "It's just that we are so grateful to be on the other side of this huge test and journey."

And, the Cervellis hope their story will help others who are facing a difficult diagnosis. "You've got to stay positive – and know that it's OK to accept help when you need it," Gil says.

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