Local man suffering from leukemia thanks blood donors

Local man suffering from leukemia thanks blood donors

By Brandon Reid, Assistant Editor

When he was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago, doctors told Frank Cimino of Rockford he would be lucky to make his 60th birthday. Cimino turned 60 Tuesday, Feb. 25.

“I’m not out of the woods yet,” Cimino said. “I’m still dancin’ with the devil, but I’m better than what I have been.”

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells in which large numbers of abnormal blood cells (white blood cells in most cases) are produced. The abnormal blood cells are not capable of helping the body fight infection and, depending on where the blood cells collect, patients suffer different symptoms including fever, chills, weakness, infection, loss of appetite and/or weight, and easy bleeding or bruising. Nearly 27,000 adults and more than 2,000 children are diagnosed with leukemia each year in the United States.

Cimino worked as a toolmaker at Rockford Spring Co. for 15 years before retiring because, “It just got to the point where I couldn’t do the job anymore. Every time I’d stand up, I’d get so tired I thought I’d fall asleep,” he said.

Cimino has lost nearly 50 pounds since being diagnosed with leukemia. He said he weighed 165 pounds before the disease and now weighs 125 pounds and has weighed as little as 117 pounds.

Cimino recently had a fungus removed from his chest, which he said has left a scar that resembles a gunshot wound. He said doctors gave him little hope for recovery after the surgery, saying the only option would be experimental therapy and medication. He was given his last rites while in the hospital.

“They said I wouldn’t make Christmas,” Cimino said. “They sent hospice over, and they were going to let me fade off into the sunset. Well, something worked, because it healed up. They said I wouldn’t last a week, and there wasn’t anything else they could do. But I’ve made it over that hump, and I’m going to celebrate my 60th birthday.”

Doctors have said the leukemia is not in remission, although Cimino said his doctor told him, “Just keep it up, and I love when you prove me wrong.”

Cimino has been taking thalidomide, the controversial drug that caused many birth defects during the 1960s, as treatment for the disease, and has also undergone chemotherapy. He said one of the most debilitating symptoms of the disease is fatigue.

“It’s hard enough just getting off the couch,” said Cimino, who now uses a cane to help him get around. “There’s a point of no return where you get worn out. A lot of things you just put off until you have the energy. But I don’t feel so bad once I get fresh blood in me.”

Cimino goes to the infusion room at SwedishAmerican Hospital for two units of blood every three weeks. “The doctors and nurses, they’ve been real good about it, but without the blood, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “It’s the only thing that gives me the energy to get up and get around. Otherwise, it’s just kind of listless.”

Cimino placed a free classified ad in this issue of The Rock River Times thanking those who have donated blood.

“I thought it was a good idea to put in a thank-you to all those people giving blood,” Cimino said. “You see the ads on TV all the time saying give blood and get a cookie. It’s pretty hard to get personal with a cookie. I figured I’m somebody in their hometown, so I’d give them a face and a name and let them know they’re doing a good thing. I’ve never seen anybody say thank you to those people.”

Cimino graduated from West High School in 1961 and spent two years in the United States Navy, including active duty during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He said of the Crisis: “I remember the night before, the water was all nice, peaceful, quiet and calm, and I opened the hatch that morning and it was unbelievable … there were so many ships out there. And those cargo ships were stopped cold in the water. It was a close call then.”

Cimino was married for a few years in the 1960s before getting divorced and has been left with raising his only son, Vince, since his son was 14 months old. Cimino and his son, then 2, hitchhiked to Anaheim, Calif., where they lived for about a year before moving back. “I was running around with a little 2-year-old son on my arm and Pampers in my back pocket,” Cimino said. Cimino said his son, now 36, has had a hard time coming to grips with his father’s illness.

“He still doesn’t believe it’s happening,” Cimino said. “He’s in denial still. But I tell him it’s going to happen, that that’s the way I’m going to pass.”

Cimino said if he were to offer advice to others with leukemia, he would say: “It’s just a fact of life and you’ve got this illness, and it’s going to get you, and you can put your mind to it and just go day to day. But, other than that, you just keep it in your mind and don’t feel sorry for yourself.”

Insurance has covered most of Cimino’s medical costs, although he said the grace period on his insurance recently ran out and he has applied for Medicaid. He said his hospital bills alone (paid for largely by his insurance) have totalled more than $100,000.

Cimino, who said he had never suffered a serious illness before being diagnosed with leukemia, said, “I feel pretty fortunate, mine came at the end of my youthful years.”

For information on leukemia, visit the National Cancer Institute Web site at http://cancer.gov, or call 1-800-422-6237. For information on donating blood, contact the Northern Illinois Blood Bank at 965-8751.

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