Article and Photo by Alice Gerard
Senior Contributing Writer
Jody and Tom Fogarty, who were chosen as Relay For Life’s honorary survivors in 2023, both are cancer free after recent cancer diagnoses: Tom with bladder cancer in 2018 and Jody with breast cancer in 2021. They said one of their goals in telling their story is to encourage others to make sure to have regular cancer screenings.
Jody, 48, works as a first-grade teacher at Hoover Elementary School, in the Kenmore-Tonawanda school district. Tom, 59, worked for Fuccillo for close to 40 years.
Jody, who grew up in New Hartford, near Utica, has taught for 23 years. Jody said she enjoys her job. She said the children are “little enough to still love their teacher. They make little love notes. They tell you how much they love school. You see a huge change in learning ability from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. It’s an extremely rewarding job.”
Jody has a busy lifestyle, as a teacher and as a parent. She has two sons and a daughter, and Tom brought three sons and a daughter into their marriage. They also have four grandchildren. She said that, because of family life and work, it was difficult to find the time for health checkups.
“I was overdue for my mammogram,” she said. “Being a mom and a teacher is a very busy lifestyle, and you put yourself last. If I had to give advice to any person, it would be you can’t put yourself last because these people need you.”
One day, in June of 2021, a mobile mammogram unit came to the doctor’s office where Jody is a patient. “The doctor’s office was literally one minute down the street from where I work,” she said. “I was like, ‘Perfect. I can leave work and go there and get that and be done.’ I went to the mobile unit and had my mammograms. They said, ‘The doctor will call you.’ I didn’t think anything of it. Well, then, I got a phone call a couple of days later that said, ‘We actually need you to come in for some more pictures.’
“The mobile unit is kind of an initial screening. They drive around to catch people, and it’s amazing. I am so thankful because they probably saved my life.
“I went in for more pictures. They said, ‘We see some things, and you need a biopsy.’ The biopsy came back positive for cancer. I was very fortunate that it was stage one cancer, and I had a bunch of precancer all on just the right side. I had one tumor and something called DCIS (the precancer) that eventually would turn into cancer. After the biopsy, we decided to switch and go over to Roswell because it just seemed like the right thing to do. We were put in touch with a fabulous doctor there named Dr. Helen Cappuccino. She was very calming. That’s what I noticed about Roswell, too. Everyone was so positive, and they are calming and they help. They were wonderful.”
Jody had to go through testing, which included MRIs, bloodwork and genetic testing: “It feels like a very long waiting game. At times, we had to wait two weeks. The wait, to me, was really hard.
“At the end, we found out that I needed a lumpectomy. Just the right side, but, when they did the surgery (on July 23), they had to take quite a bit because it was more extensive than they thought it was. They removed over half of that breast. They did go in and take the lymph nodes. Thank God, they were clear. After that, they knew that I needed radiation. They tested me to find out if I needed chemo. My number came back low, and I did not need to have chemo. I was so very fortunate.”
Jody started radiation in September. She had 26 sessions, which lasted five weeks.
“We set it up to where I would work, then I would get the kids on the bus, and literally run from there to my car and drive to Roswell, do radiation, and then go home. It was tiring, but my head needed to be busy. Tom said, ‘Take a day,’ and I said, ‘I can’t. I need everything to keep moving.’ I stayed busy. Radiation is not awful, but it was challenging. It causes quite a bit of fatigue.”
When asked how she was able to continue working in the classroom while having radiation, she explained, “It was a different start to the school year. Everyone was wearing masks. There was the fear of COVID then. Obviously, your immune system is down a bit, so there was a little fear for me, but more like if I catch COVID, I can’t go to Roswell and get my treatments. There was a little bit of fear at being in the classroom with all those kids. Everyone wore masks and washed hands. We all did that, and I stayed healthy.
“I have no family history of breast cancer. When I was at Roswell, they said, ‘Believe it or not, it is a very small percentage that has a family history.’ Many people said, ‘Oh, you must have family history.’ I think that a really important thing to get out there is no, most people do not have family history. If you’re writing it off as, ‘I have no family history, and I’m sure I’m fine,’ you’re not.”
Tom’s bladder cancer was diagnosed early in 2018.
“One morning, I woke up, and I didn’t feel good,” he related. “I went to the bathroom, and I had urinated blood. I didn’t know what was going on. I started to feel lightheaded. I said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I called my doctor right away. He got back to me immediately. Something was obviously wrong. I went in, and he made me do a urine sample while I was there. While I did the urine sample there, I noticed that, in the toilet, there were these pieces that came out of me. I didn’t know what it was. It was a cyst, a sac, and it broke, and that’s where the blood came from. By the blood coming out, it gave me an early warning sign. It was a great thing. I didn’t know it at the time. I went directly from my doctor to a urologist. Western New York Urology. Dr. Richard Gilbert scoped me. He put a scope in me and then said, ‘You have a tumor.’
“I was shocked. I never thought of myself as having cancer. This is crazy. He said, ‘You have to go in. We’re going to schedule an operation for a week to 10 days later. I went to Western New York Urology and had the bladder cancer removed. Everything I do is there. They have a whole facility.
“My situation was a lot different than Jody’s. For the first three years, I had to go back and be scoped once every three months. So, two years in, and I was just short of the three years, he found a little bit more cancer.
“Dr. Gilbert removed the cancer again, but then he had to put me back to the beginning. I ended up having five years of every three months when I had to go and get scoped. A lot of men will tell you that they get all worried about it, and it hurts. You get used to it. It’s weird. But going in there and knowing what they’re looking for, this is nothing. I had to go. I did not take any medicine. No radiation, no chemo or anything. Now I go once a year for my checkups.
“On the fifth year (2023), he graduated me, and I was 100% clean. It was in March. He said, ‘Congratulations.’ People said, ‘You don’t have to go there anymore.’ I wasn’t worried about that. I was just happy that it (the cancer) was gone. I was lucky because of prescreening or screening early, which they always tell you to do. I didn’t screen at all because I had no idea. The cyst that was on the tumor broke, and the blood coming out gave me the indication there was a problem. I probably would have never known. And then, it could have been a serious situation.”
Tom’s advice for people is to make sure to have regular cancer screenings: “It doesn’t hurt. Get screenings, especially for a woman. A mammogram. Jody will tell you she hadn’t had one in a while. When we went, that’s where we found it (the cancer). I would tell people to make sure you do get screened. If you have a family history of it, you really should do your best to get screened to find out if you have anything.
“After that, there’s a lot of worry. You wonder if it’s going to get bad or if you’re going to die from this. Is it going to get worse? Am I going to get sick? You go off on this tangent. Then you realize you can only deal with what you have or what’s in front of you. I would tell everyone, ‘Don’t panic.’ There are some unbelievable people in Western New York, at Western New York Urology and at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, where Jody went. I thank God every day.”
Next: Jody and Tom talk about family history of cancer, support systems for people with cancer, as well as their involvement with Relay For Life and other causes.