When you're working full time, training for a triathlon, and serving as mayor of your hometown, it's not surprising that you would feel fatigued. And when you're a healthy person in your early 40s, some small lumps on your neck may not seem like cause for concern.
At least they didn't to Chris Kelly, the mayor of Franklin Township, when he experienced those symptoms earlier this year. "I thought I probably had an infection that was making me run down and causing swollen lymph nodes," he said. "I expected that my doctor would put me on antibiotics, the lumps would shrink, and I would feel fine."
But instead of giving Kelly a prescription, his doctor gave him a referral – to an oncologist. A few days and tests later, the 43-year-old athlete was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "It was definitely a shock," Kelly says of the news that he had cancer. "I'm a healthy guy. I run, swim, bike, and train. I never smoked. And I never expected this would happen to me. So I had about 15 minutes of 'Why me?' and then my wife and I focused on deciding what we were going to do."
One of the first decisions they made was for Kelly to receive treatment at Regional Cancer Care Associates, or RCCA, one of the nation's largest oncology-physician networks. RCCA's 25 locations throughout New Jersey include local offices in East Brunswick, where Edward J. Licitra, MD, PhD practices.
While Kelly long has been friends with Dr. Licitra, and knew that he was an oncologist, he didn't realize that treating lymphoma was an area of practice emphasis for the physician. "The doctors and nurses at RCCA are wonderful with everyone, but it was reassuring for me to be treated by someone I knew well," Kelly said.
By the time Kelly completed his chemotherapy earlier this month, the number of RCCA caregivers he knew well had expanded dramatically. "They have been nothing short of phenomenal," he said of the nurses, technicians, and other health care professionals he has encountered at RCCA's East Brunswick location. "They have made a tough experience much better than it otherwise would be. My family has been with me every step of the way, and when I've gone for chemotherapy sessions, I've been very fortunate that one or more family members or friends has come along to keep me company. So when I walk into the treatment area, the nurses ask, 'Who's it going to be today?' They not only know me, they've come to know all of my family and friends, and have made them all feel welcome."
That personal touch was important to Kelly, as was the ability to receive treatment near home. "The office is not far from my house, so it was very convenient, and yet I had access to an outstanding specialist," he said.
Dr. Licitra, who serves as RCCA's board chairperson, received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and then earned a medical degree from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey – Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He completed his internal medicine residency at Robert Wood Johnson before going on to a fellowship in medical oncology at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. He is board-certified in both internal medicine and medical oncology. A member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the Medical Society of New Jersey, Dr. Licitra has been recognized as a "Top Doctor" in oncology and hematology by New Jersey Monthly magazine, and has received numerous other honors.
Although Kelly is accustomed to long-distance running, he acknowledges that the period from his diagnosis on June 3 to his last treatment on Sept. 18 has been the most grueling course he has had to cover. "I won't lie, the chemotherapy was tough, but it wasn't horrible the way I thought it would be," he said. "In my case, it felt like a really bad flu, but even in the midst of that, I've been able to run a little and do some biking."
With his treatment completed and all signs indicating that he has fully recovered, Kelly's thoughts now are focused on the future – and on gratitude. In addition to Dr. Licitra and the other RCCA team members, he expressed deep appreciation not only to his wife and other family members, but also to many long-time friends and to others who became friends over the past few months. "To be honest, there are some people who I would not have expected to be there for me who have been absolutely wonderful," he said. Kelly also expressed his gratitude to his employer, Advanced Food Systems, for the company's understanding and support throughout his treatment.
In terms of the future, Kelly is preparing to run the Atlantic City Marathon in October to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He's also in the midst of a race of another sort as he runs for mayor in the November elections.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Kelly said that the recipe he would recommend for dealing with cancer includes the following ingredients:
- Focus on the positive; avoid dwelling on the worst possibilities
- Get the best care you can find
- Accept support with gratitude; don't try to go it alone
- Educate yourself, but get your information from credible sources
- As best you can, keep a sense of humor