After Successful Lung Cancer Care at Virtua Health, Firefighter Says He 'Would Never Go Anywhere Else'

Gennaro “Jerry” Critelli, Jr. hadn’t taken a sick day in 26 years. But in January 2020, he came down with what he thought was a bad cold that he couldn’t shake. After visits to urgent care and rounds of medications that did not resolve his coughing and wheezing, he visited his primary care doctor. An X-ray revealed a mass on his lung.

A Coordinated Diagnosis
Jerry credits the attentive and coordinated action of his primary care team, Dennis Piccone, DO, and Dawn Gadon, APN, with quickly getting him the tests he needed and connecting him with Virtua Health thoracic surgeon Matthew Puc, MD for a lung biopsy. The results came back the following day and confirmed Jerry’s fears: He had small-cell lung cancer. 

Jerry Critelli, Jr.“I was shocked,” said Jerry, 56, of Mullica Township. “I hadn’t touched a cigarette in 22 years and only had an occasional cigar on the golf course. But I also have worked around diesel vehicles for 38 years, and have been a firefighter for 40 years.”

According to a study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters have a slightly higher risk of developing cancer. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also lists exposure to diesel exhaust as a potential risk factor for lung cancer

Making a Treatment Plan
Despite receiving his diagnosis at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jerry knew that he couldn’t wait to start his treatments. Luckily, he did not need surgery. Within a few days, he met with two doctors from the Penn Medicine | Virtua Cancer Program — hematologist/oncologist Stephen Zrada, MD, and radiation oncologist John Wilson, MD.

Amid all the worry, he also received some good news.

“My brain MRI and my PET scan were clear,” said Jerry. “The type of cancer I had has a habit of going to the brain, but fortunately, there was only a small spot in my airway. It hadn’t spread to any distant sites.”

Starting Treatment Close to Home
Jerry said he was relieved to have access to physicians from Penn Medicine | Virtua Cancer Program close to home. He said the partnership between Virtua and Penn Medicine was appealing because he knew he could receive advanced care from cancer experts without having to travel. 

Although Jerry was very happy with his cancer team, his relatives recommended that he get a second opinion from a large hospital in New York City. 

“I told my doctors that I was going to get a second opinion, and they were very supportive and willing to send my records over,” said Jerry. “I was even more impressed when the doctors in New York told me that they wouldn’t do anything differently than what Penn Medicine | Virtua Cancer team was planning.”

With the help of an oncology nurse navigator, Jerry scheduled his chemotherapy and radiation appointments at Virtua, close to home. 

 “The radiation treatments were so fast — it took less than 15 minutes for each treatment,” said Jerry. “I had no side effects.” 

Jerry received 12 chemotherapy treatments over 14 weeks, and during his appointments, he said the nurses did everything they could to put him at ease. 

“They explained every step and were so compassionate,” said Jerry. “I was scared to death, and the level of support that these nurses gave me was phenomenal.”

Chemotherapy can have potential side effects, such as fatigue and nausea.

“I struggled when I had chemo, but I didn’t just lay in bed because I knew it wasn’t good for me,” said Jerry. “I drove to all my appointments with my wife by my side, I cut my own grass on the weeks when I didn’t have chemotherapy treatments, and walked with my wife every night. It could have been much worse.”

Looking Toward the Future
After completing his treatments, Jerry received the result he was hoping for: His August 2020 scan showed that the cancer was drastically minimized. An October brain scan also came back clear. 

Jerry is glad to be back to work as a fleet supervisor at Atlantic City Electric. He says he is grateful for the support of his family and he continues to serve his community at the Mullica Township Volunteer Fire Department. 

“I’ve never been through anything like this before, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to,” he said. “But I can’t imagine getting better care from anywhere else in the world. I would never go anywhere else.”

If you’re a current or former smoker or have other risk factors for lung cancer, talk to your doctor about getting a lung screening or learn more at virtua.org/LungScreening.

Updated November 23, 2020

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