PROSPECT — When his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, Joe DePalma, of Prospect, focused on her health and their 3-year-old son.
When Karen DePalma went into remission and got pregnant, Joe walked around “like a proud rooster.”
Two months after Karen’s cancer returned, Joe was diagnosed with kidney cancer and the couple juggled rigorous treatment sessions at separate hospitals.
Karen died in 2012 at age 46, and Joe — whose cancer continues to spread — has harnessed his energy into taking care of their son and daughter. Josh, 17, is a junior at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls, and Jessie, 11, is in fifth grade at Prospect Elementary School.
“Karen and I used to joke that we won the lottery,” said Joe, 53, of the misfortune of both parents having cancer. “But we got a crappy prize.”
Good humor is a classic trait of Joe’s, say friends from his small, close-knit town. Neighbors and fellow members of St. Anthony’s Church have rallied around the DePalma family since the start of their troubles. On March 19, the third annual Karen DePalma 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament will take place at Woodland. Funds go toward Joe’s ongoing medical expenses.
“Last year we raised about $2,000, and then Joe donated some of it to the American Cancer Society,” said John Frasco, a neighbor who helps organize the tournament. “Here we are trying to help him out, and he turns around and helps other people.”
An art teacher at a Danbury middle school, Joe has taught throughout his treatments, though he has had to take time off over the years, including all of 2011. Most recently, he had the adrenal gland on his remaining kidney removed. The surgery, which left a foot-long scar across his stomach, took a bigger toll on him than previous operations.
Earlier this week, he found out why: He already has new tumors near his pancreas and stomach. He starts more chemotherapy Monday.
“It’s actually pills, which I’m really excited about,” said Joe, who finds a way to show enthusiasm over toxins he will put in his body.
Still, he is matter of fact about the cancer, which keeps popping up in new places and getting put down by his doctors like a game of whack-a-mole.
“They aren’t going to cure me, but keep me on maintenance drugs and keep me here as long possible,” said Joe. “My doctor always has a plan for me, and I’ll worry when he runs of out of plans.”
He mentioned the fridge full of trays of ravioli and sausages and peppers prepared by friends.
“People are good to us. We’ve been very fortunate,” he said on a recent afternoon in the home he and Karen bought in 1996.
A framed photo of Karen, blue-eyed with blond hair, was perched on an end table next to him. Karen, who grew up in Prospect, taught at Thomaston Center School. Wooden apples with catch phrases about the teaching profession line the mantel in the living room, along with teacher of the year mugs for each of them.
Karen and Joe, who hails from Somers, N.Y., met on a blind date.
“What? That’s not what you told me,” exclaimed Jessie as her father relayed the story. “You told me she saw you walking by and said, ‘Yoo-hoo!’”
Joe threw back his head, laughed and continued the tale of how he and Karen enjoyed many happy years, even though cancer was soon a constant or looming threat.
“We really had a good life. It wasn’t all doom and gloom. You can choose to say you are dying of cancer, but we lived with cancer. Attitude is half the battle. I’m not happy with this latest news, but I’ve been here before,” he said.
Karen was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 at age 35. After several rounds of treatment, she was cancer-free for a number of years until it returned in the spring of 2009. Shortly after, Joe noticed a persistent cough.
“I have the gift of gab and I couldn’t get through a sentence at school without coughing,” he said.
He thought maybe he was overdoing it in his yard, where he takes pride in his expansive vegetable gardens and professional looking landscaping. A chest X-ray revealed a large tumor on his kidney. He was diagnosed with stage 4 renal cell carcinoma, the most common type of kidney cancer found in adults.
The cancer had spread to his lungs, which explained his cough.
“The doctors told me to get my papers in order,” Joe said. “They didn’t think I’d make it through the summer.”
But his oncologist from Yale Cancer Center in New Haven got him on an experimental immunotherapy drug.
“I had a miraculous recovery,” Joe said.
He and Karen traded off caretaker roles as one would go through a bad spell, and the other’s health would improve.
“Karen paved the way for me with treatment. I was a big wimp but had watched her do it,” Joe said.
Meanwhile, Joe’s cancer spread to his hip, where it ate away a whole socket and caused incredible pain. Eventually, the hip was replaced. Next, it moved to his brain and he underwent a particularly unpleasant form of radiation that eradicated it. He had one kidney and adrenal gland removed in 2013. Then, it spread to his other kidney, where two tumors remain but are not showing signs of growth.
“The cancer is here and it’s not going away, but I’ve already beaten the odds. I’m on the cusp of a lot of great new drugs and therapies,” he said. “For Karen, it was too late, but for me, nobody knows. We’re not holy rollers, but we are Catholic and go to church and I believe I’m here for my kids. They have been robbed of so much.”
Josh, who just got his driver’s license, is able to help Joe with errands and get himself to basketball and track practices. Jessie, a dancer and gymnast, knows how to do laundry. The kids have never known life without cancer.
“There was a big empty space in the house,” Josh said of what life was like after his mother died. “She was a very cheerful person. But my dad is very positive, always thinks there is a light at the end of the tunnel. My mom was the same way.”
Lori Keyser, a Prospect resident, called the family’s saga “unimaginable.” A breast cancer survivor who was friends with Karen, Keyser first met Joe when he came to her house with a plate of cookies and a plant as she was recovering from a double mastectomy.
“My hair was a mess and I was so embarrassed and he said, ‘You look beautiful. My wife had that same outfit,’” she recalled. “I think sometimes he gets upset, but everybody does, and he comes around and says, ‘This is what I am supposed to be doing. This is how my children are going to learn about life.’”
Joe, Keyser said, is the type of guy who would pull over and help a stranger change a tire on the side of the road without giving it a second thought.
“Karen and Joe supported each other. I’ve seen families break up because of cancer situations, but they just figured things out. I remember one time, after his hip surgery, running into him at the mall and he had Jessie perched on the top of his walker. He said, ‘Well, I can’t carry her,’” Keyser said. “And when you see him, it’s a big hug and a kiss and ‘How are you?’ and he might joke about how one of the treatments is going to make him taller.”
Frasco marveled at how Joe puts up with the myriad side effects of his treatments.
“It’s sometimes like they are worse than the disease,” he said. “But he keeps saying, ‘It is what it is.’ If I were in the same predicament, I don’t think I would be able to look at it the same way.”
Joe, however, prefers to cast the spotlight on his many friends who have helped him out. “This town has done so much for us,” said Joe. “We try to pay it forward as much as we can, but the last three years have been a struggle. When I don’t work, I don’t get paid. I’ll be starting up the forms for long-term disability. I last worked Feb. 1 and can’t go back for six weeks.”
He teared up when he mentioned how Jessie came home the other day with $500 in gift cards to local restaurants from teachers at her school.
“We aren’t destitute. Even on a bad day, I love my job and it’s a distraction for me,” he said. “The kids have their activities. We try to live as normal a life as we can.”
If you go
The 3rd Annual Karen DePalma 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament will be held March 19 at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls. Boys and girls from grades 6 through 8 will play from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.; boys and girls in grades 9 through 12 will play from 1 to 4 p.m. Each player donates $10 and there is a five-player maximum per team. Register alone or with a team, preferably by Saturday. For more information, call 203-758-4461.