By Michele Deluca
Sam Giambattista is one tough guy.
He credits his dad for that. And his football coach from years back when he played both ways for Bishop Duffy.
With his dad, Serofino, also known as Sam, for whom he is named, he could never get away with anything. Like when he was 15, smoking at the skating rink, and his dad showed up there. His coach, Rich Condino, seemed to have it out for him too, even though Sam was a team captain.
Back then, he hated that they were so hard on him. But, today, he’s grateful his old man was a tough guy. And that his coach made him run four laps when everybody else only had to run two. Now it all makes sense to Sam.
These days Sam is battling lung cancer. And that toughness sure comes in handy.
”Without my dad, for sure, and my coach, without them two, I don’t think I would have been able to fight the way I fought,” Sam told me on the phone earlier this week.
And yet, I think the toughest person in Sam’s life is his wife of eight years, Patricia Giambattista.
Tricia has been sending me a relentless stream of emails for months now. Infused with a passion for battling the disease that has her husband in its grip, she’s been doing all she can to raise awareness about lung cancer and raise money to beat it.
A few weeks ago, she wrote me to say she and Sam had raised about $1,400 and, as such, Sam was going to try to qualify to ride in the opening ceremonies of the Ride for Roswell Friday.
I thought that would be a pretty good story. The ride to the opening ceremonies, in preparation for the big event on Saturday, is called the peloton, and it begins at the acclaimed cancer hospital in the heart of Buffalo’s medical corridor.
The bikers start their trek by circling the hospital several times, each carrying the name of a patient currently receiving treatment and who are brought to the windows to see their riders. Then, two by two, the riders pedal to the stadium at the University of Buffalo’s Amherst campus, where there are speakers and music, all in preparation for Saturday’s Ride for Roswell. The opening procession of bikers makes a grand entrance into the stadium to open the ceremonies. The 200 riders, all of whom have raised $1,000 or more, have to be able to make the 12 miles to the stadium within the hour.
Sam gave his all to a rigorous qualifier, pedaling around Forest Lawn Cemetery where the trials are held. But, with stage four lung cancer, he couldn’t do it. He simply ran out of breath.
That was when Tricia decided to try to qualify in his name. This is a woman who has had reconstructive surgery on both knees and a shoulder. She’s also a woman who hasn’t let Sam do anything but work on his healing for the last two years, while she’s been working two jobs, including one as an aerobic’s instructor.
Now Sam won’t be riding that bike on Friday, but Tricia will.
You can imagine that Sam - the tough guy - wouldn’t like it so much that the little woman is riding in his place. But, Sam is not as tough as he once was, and that, he says, is the gift of the ugly illness trying to take his life.
”It sounds crazy,” he said, “but the lung cancer has been a blessing to me.”
Yes, he’s fighting for his life. But, now he’s closer than ever before to his two grown kids and, especially to Tricia. Yes, even though some drugs helped shrink his cancer by 90 percent, he’s going to be on chemo for the rest of his life to keep it at bay. But, he says, everything means more now and “the greens are greener, the blues bluer.”
Best of all, he says, he’s created a relationship with God. “I believe deep in my heart and soul that my God has a plan for everyone and mine has not been fulfilled yet,” Sam wrote me in an email after we talked by phone. “And this is the most important aspect of me surviving, that being God first and everyone else after him.”
As for Tricia, there’s a couple of things she’s been after me to tell people. She wants you to know that lung cancer is responsible for the most cancer related deaths for both men and women throughout the world, including an increasing number of nonsmokers, yet far more research money is spent on other cancers, like breast, colon and prostate. “Obviously, lung cancer awareness is lacking,” she wrote me in one of her emails,”and far too many die of this dreaded disease.”
When asked why she works so hard at fundraising and awareness, Tricia is silent for a long moment. Then, her voice breaks as she tries to speak. “...to get the word out,” she says to me, and after a moment, “to get rid of the stigmatism from cancer and lung cancer related to smoking.”
It is, she believes, the best way she can help her husband. “This is what keeps me going,” she said, “to see him living life, to see him positive, to see him laugh.”
Tricia asked me to remind people that Aug. 1 is World Lung Cancer Awareness Day and said there will be a prayer vigil at Greater Niagara Falls Church of God in Sanborn at 7 p.m. that day.
I know Sam and Tricia are already praying, and they surely feel as if there is someone listening.
”I’m happier and more content than any time in my life before the cancer,” Sam tells me, and he seems as mystified as I am by that.
No matter what, I’m thinking they are both pretty darn tough. Sam’s already looking ahead to next year’s ride.
In the meantime, they’re both counting their blessings.