News Releases

December 14, 2000

Emory Eye Center specialist saves patient's life: Joe Labadia's amazing will to win

(ATLANTA) Joe LaBadia is a former pro-football player, drafted by the Jets in 1978. A youngish and fit 40-something, an involved father and husband, Joe had everything to live for. A good job, a fine home, and a seemingly charmed life in the sunny South.

His father's funeral back in Joe's home state of New Jersey may have saved his life. It was then that relatives and friends noticed that Joe didn't look right. One of his eyes bulged, and his own immediate family had not noticed, often the case with changes that occur subtly and slowly over time.

Joe promised his wife that he'd make an appointment with an eye doctor when he returned home to Atlanta from the funeral. Little did he realize that he'd end up at having an MRI the same day, and then be sent on to Emory University Hospital. There he saw Emory Eye Center oculo-plastics specialists Ted Wojno, MD, and Melissa Meldrum, MD. Fortune was shining upon him, because Dr. Meldrum had a very special interest in this diagnosis. And she had moved to Atlanta only the year before. As Joe puts it, "She was heaven sent."

Joe's rough and tumble world of pro football was nothing compared to the medical diagnosis and difficult ordeal he was about to go through for the next few months.

Joe had adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), a very rare cancer of the lacrimal gland (tear duct). Typically a fatal prognosis, this particular cancer had chosen Joe LaBadia, a real fighter who was not about to give in to a cancer prognosis. Armed with that impressive mindset and strong will to live, Joe had serendipitously ended up at Emory with Dr. Meldrum, who trained in Miami with a surgeon who developed the protocol for the particular type of aggressive chemotherapy and intricate surgery that would be required to save Joe's life. Although she had treated others with ACC, Joe was the first patient she treated in Atlanta with that diagnosis.

That day in fall of 1999 Dr. Meldrum had to tell him that he'd have to lose his eye in order to save his life. Moreover, he'd have to endure three rounds of aggressive chemotherapy prior to surgery, just to shrink the tumor so that it could be removed, along with the area around his eye. Joe said, fine, take the eye-just do it!

As Joe will tell you, nothing in his life-even training with an Olympic coach-was as hard as those three rounds of intense chemotherapy. The former William Patterson University Hall of Famer learned to think of his year with chemo, surgery and recovery as a game he couldn't lose-not even once.

"People ask me how I've remained so strong, and how I can give to my job every day. I tell them I have no fear," says Joe. "We are all equal as human beings, and in a room full of cancer treatment patients, we are all equal. It is a humbling and enlightening experience."

When Joe went into chemotherapy, he was determined to accept it with the formidable strength and grace that he possessed. In a short 66 days, he received 1,000 units of chemo, an amazing treatment to endure. The Cisplatin and Adriamyacin would take their toll on Joe-swelling and weight gain initially, a drop in white blood count, recurrent infections, nausea, mouth sores, and later, weight loss. Joe had to take medication even to sleep. Dr. Meldrum told him those 100 days of treatment would be the hardest of his life. "She wasn't kidding," says Joe. "I felt like I had the flu for three months." But Joe was determined to get up every day and walk, if only for a short distance.

The nurses were constantly amazed at Joe's strength. The day after his first chemo treatment when most patients cannot get out of bed, he did. Joe walked around the nurses station, amazing those on duty. "I was determined not to let this get me down," says Joe. He even ordered an exercise bike for his hospital room, something that still astounds the medical team working with Joe. "I wouldn't wear a hospital gown either," says Joe proudly. His motto, "Never give up-Win!" served him well and was incorporated into the t-shirt that he wore while in the hospital.

But Joe was determined to remain fit and as strong as he could for the duration of treatment. He went on a bacteria-free diet, increased his protein input and drank a supplemental protein drink so that he could keep his weight up.

On the day of his surgery, Nov. 12, 1999, the anesthesiologist had trouble inserting the tube down Joe's throat. A throat specialist was called in, and subsequently, surgery was postponed and rescheduled a week later, when they ascertained nothing was physically wrong with his throat. The four-hour surgery went well and Joe went home to recover-a full eight weeks. More radiation and chemo followed the surgery for six weeks, but by then, Joe could see the end in sight. Not only had the surgeon completely removed his eye, but much of the area around his eye also was removed, necessitating a facial prosthesis. Joe then flew to Dallas to be fitted.

In the year that has transpired Joe says he's only had three bad days. "That's not bad for what I've been through, is it?" says Joe. The support of his family, his neighbors-who took care of his children and brought dinners over-and his company, Billings Freight System, were invaluable. "My company continued to pay me throughout this ordeal," says Joe proudly. "They gave 110%, and in these days, an employer that stands by you in that way is unusual."

Upon reflection, Joe says that a good attitude-believing in yourself- and having a level of physical fitness and the support of friends and family are the keys to coming out of a potentially life-threatening situation.

"Keeping my life and my family's as normal as possible was crucial to me," says Joe. "Knowing that there would be days I'd be sick and depressed helped, but going into this with a good level of fitness and a positive mindset is what I advise to anyone who will listen," he concludes. Joe currently is a motivational speaker for cancer groups, is a coach for children's karate, has maintained his golf game (he plays in the low 80s) and generally feels great. Not bad for someone who might have been given no hope of survival. He's even befriended two other athletes who are cancer survivors this year: Joe Torre and Arnold Palmer.

"I am very proud of myself because when you get cancer you get a choice-live or die," says Joe. "I decided to live." And, as Joe exclaims with obvious joy, "I'm now cancer free and living life to its fullest."

Editors: Joe LaBadia's written testimonial is also available. Please call 404-778-3711.

Media Contact: Joy H. Bell

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