NJ Dad Walks Daughter Down Aisle Thanks to Cancer Trial
February 07, 2024
When Mark Antonacci, 63, developed a cough in 2020, he naturally suspected it was COVID-19. But after testing negative for the coronavirus and being treated unsuccessfully for pneumonia, Mark sought out the expertise of a pulmonary doctor who ordered a CT scan of his chest. The scan showed a suspicious mass, and a biopsy confirmed the diagnosis: advanced-stage small cell lung cancer, a rare and fast-growing type of cancer.
Mark remembers the moment his doctor broke the news: “He said that it was a very aggressive cancer. I was standing in front of a window when he told me this, and it was like I instantly went into a fog. I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
Innovative Cancer Treatment
Mark and his wife, Jane, sprung into action to find the best care and treatment for him. “My doctor said that I didn’t have much time, so we started going through the process of trying to get into hospitals and trying to get insurance lined up.”
Their efforts pointed them to John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center. There, Mark was given the option of being part of a promising new phase II clinical trial for his treatment. Martin Gutierrez, M.D., a medical oncologist specializing in thoracic oncology and early drug development, was the principal investigator at John Theurer Cancer Center for this trial.
“The goal of the trial is to improve upon the results of the standard-care chemotherapy for small cell lung cancer,” says Dr. Gutierrez. “The trial includes chemotherapy, but it has two different drugs as maintenance therapy, as well. One is an immunotherapy, which manipulates the immune system to have better outcomes, and the second is a targeted therapy that attacks specific proteins.”
Mark was one of three patients from John Theurer Cancer Center being treated as part of this global study. The study is now closed, and data is being collected and analyzed. “Every single drug has to go through a very detailed process of development,” says Dr. Gutierrez. “Part of that development is clinical trials to answer specific questions on specific diseases. If the results of the clinical trials are positive and show improved outcomes for patients, then the drug or treatment will replace the standard of care therapy eventually.”
Moving Ahead with Life
After Mark finished six rounds of chemotherapy, he spent the next two years going back to John Theurer Cancer Center once a month for his maintenance therapy. Both the chemo and maintenance therapy meant being at the hospital for hours each time, so Mark says he became good friends with the team there. “They all knew my name and they were friendly and fun. They deserve a standing ovation for how they took care of me,” he says.
Other than some tiredness and stomach problems, Mark says he felt pretty good throughout his treatment. He even kept working full-time, which for Mark—who manages an auto part store and works at a local stadium when it’s open—can mean six or even seven days a week. “I kept my life moving ahead. I didn't have any problems going to work other than the days I had to be at the hospital for chemo,” says Mark.
Mark is now in complete remission and doing well, with no evidence of disease. In October, he walked his daughter, Stephanie, down the aisle at her wedding at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. “I made it to her wedding. I made it!” he says. “I’m so grateful that I got into the trial. It saved my life.”
Next Steps & Resources
- Meet our source: Martin Gutierrez, M.D.
- To make an appointment with an oncologist near you, call 800-822-8905 or visit our website.
- Learn more about cancer care at Hackensack Meridian Health.
- Schedule a cancer screening near you.
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