Lahey Goes the Distance to Save Cancer Patient’s Life

Determined wife refuses to accept grim prognosis

Raena Cennamo could only smile as her husband, Josh, recently popped a wheelie on his bike in their backyard in Westfield. “Josh is such a kid at heart, you know?” she mused, while holding their six-month-old son, named after his father. Seeing how carefree Josh is, you would never know he had been diagnosed three years ago with a rare bile duct cancer.  Without Raena’s determination and the expert care at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, Josh might not be here to talk about it.

At 33, Josh was active and healthy, working construction for his father’s company during the day, and tinkering with his dirt bike into the night. But in July 2016, he started to feel more tired than usual. “I was starting to feel… not myself,” Josh explained. He chalked it up to getting older and how much he was working.

Then, in November, Josh’s skin started to turn yellow. Josh insisted he was fine, but Raena pushed him to go to a  hospital near their home in Western Massachusetts. A few days later, Josh got a deadly diagnosis.

Going to battle for Josh

The doctor’s grim words to Josh rang over and over in Raena’s head: “You should get your affairs in order.” She had only been married three years, and here she was faced with losing the love of her life.

Josh was sitting in the hospital bed, lamenting not taking out a life insurance policy to ensure Raena would be okay when he’s gone.

“We were racking our brains with what to do because we didn’t know why anybody would give up on a young person,” Raena said. In that moment, she decided that even if the doctor was going to give up on Josh, she wasn’t. “That’s what you have a significant other for, to go to battle for you,” she said.

Raena took Josh’s scans from the hospital and told Josh and his family she was driving to Boston for a second opinion. “I’m just going to bang down doors until someone takes a look at these images,” she said. She and Suzette, Josh’s mom, got in the car and started dialing every hospital they could think of as they raced down the Mass Pike. 

Thankfully, a receptionist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center told them to come straight to Burlington.

The right team at the right time

Everyone at Lahey’s Roger L. Jenkins, MD, Transplant Institute immediately impressed Raena. They took care of us and held our hand every step of the way,” she said. “It was just amazing to go from having no hope and being told to go home and get your affairs in order, to having a plan, having a team to back you, and people that were ready to try anything.”

That team was headed by Roger Jenkins, MD, a pioneer in liver transplantation and an internationally renowned surgeon who specializes in diseases of the liver, biliary tract and pancreas. Once Josh was healthy enough to tolerate an operation, Dr. Jenkins and his team performed a marathon ten-hour surgery to remove the tumor, his gallbladder and part of his liver — without damaging nearby arteries that Josh needs to live.

After the operation, Josh underwent chemo and radiation, which meant six months of 100-mile drives from Westfield to Burlington. But Josh and Raena agree the time and mileage were a small price to pay.

“It’s been three years now and there’s no recurrence of anything coming back, so it was worth getting all that medicine after the surgery,” Josh said.

“I was going to be alright”

Josh and Raena were so grateful for Josh’s care and the help they received throughout his treatments, they made a generous donation to the Jenkins Transplant Institute at Lahey. To make sure patients like Josh get the lifesaving care he did, they donate every year to fund research and to help them deal with a diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma, the cancer that Josh had.

Looking back on their story, Raena and Josh say they’re just glad that Josh is alive to talk about it. When asked what was going through his head during the process Josh paused, deep in thought. “I just kept telling myself I was going to be alright and kept going,” he said. “God gave me the strength to stay tough and let them do what they had to do to make me better.”