Cancer Survivor Inspires Attendees in Opening Address

July 27, 2017

Robert Conenello, DPMIn an Opening Address that drew tears from many audience members, Robert Conenello, DPM, kicked off the 2017 Annual Scientific Meeting Thursday.

Dr. Conenello, a solo practitioner from New York and past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, shared his battle with stage 4 cancer and how it has affected his perspective as both a patient and a physician.

Dr. Conenello began suffering excruciating headaches in 2012 and went from doctor to doctor seeking a diagnosis for the debilitating pain. “I would go into a room, talk to a patient and try to put on a happy face, and then I would go into my office and put my face in my hands and cry.”

He was eventually diagnosed with glossopharyngeal neuralgia, an entrapment of the ninth cranial nerve, often referred to as a suicide disease because of the intense pain it causes. The treatment was surgery with an extensive recovery period.

“I am a solo practitioner, and I thought, how am I going to practice? Unbeknownst to me, there was a conspiracy going on.” Local physicians, Dr. Conenello’s competition, were working together to ensure his practice stayed afloat during his recovery. Each volunteered to leave his or her own practice for a day to work at his practice.

“Since my three kids were really young, I would say ‘do great things’—whatever you do today, do it with all your heart, all your effort, so you touch someone’s life,” Dr. Conenello said. “Those doctors did great things.”

But his struggle was far from over. Two years later, the pain was back, and the surgeon who originally performed his surgery sent him to a pain specialist, who nearly dismissed his symptoms.

“His hand was almost on the door,” Dr. Conenello said. “It was a seminal moment for me. I said, ‘Please wait. I know I work on the foot, but something is not right.’” After describing his symptoms in more detail, Dr. Conenello caught the other physician’s attention. He sent him for a full head and neck scan and called to deliver the news: “He said, ‘You have a huge tumor in your throat, and multiple metastases.’”

Dr. Conenello was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma and was told surgeons would have to remove his jaw and 80 percent of his tongue. The surgery would leave him with a tracheotomy. “I remember saying, ‘I just want to be able to throw a ball with my kids,’ and the resident had tears running down his face, and the doctor said, ‘We’ll do our best.’”

When he and his wife delivered the hard news to their children, “one of the kids put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It’s your time to do great things,’ and I was all in,” Dr. Conenello said.

After a deep biopsy of the tumor, the news improved. Although he still had stage 4 cancer, it was not adenoid cystic carcinoma. The new diagnosis spared Dr. Conenello the debilitating surgery, but came with a grueling regimen of chemotherapy and radiation that left him 55 pounds lighter in just three months. Once again, his local competition was there, doing great things by taking over Dr. Conenello’s practice.

Dr. Conenello delivered powerful lessons learned from the experience. “First, you have to advocate for yourself as a patient. As a physician, you have to listen to your patients. And the problem is not the problem. How you deal with it is the problem. Problems become possibilities. I had some huge problems, but here I am today, talking to my peers.”

Dr. Conenello concluded by reminding the audience that as physicians, they do great things on a daily basis. “It’s all about you guys. You touch lives every day.”

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