What It’s Like To: Battle Cancer with a Boxer’s Spirit

Laurie Paolone of Newport Coast uses her never-give-up mentality and the latest technology to fight pancreatic cancer.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

I started boxing when I was 21. I always wanted to be able to protect myself. I loved to box, I loved the skills, I loved being calm in the ring when someone is throwing a punch at you. Little did I know I would need it for cancer—everything I learned from boxing, I used for my cancer journey. 

I was diagnosed in 2019. I started getting symptoms about two months before. It started out with throwing up, and I thought I had food poisoning. Eventually I ended up in the hospital, and they did an endoscopy with an ultrasound. When I woke up, the doctor was holding my hand and my parents were at the foot of my bed. I was told that I had pancreatic cancer and that I was going to get a Whipple procedure (to remove parts of the gastrointestinal tract). 

When they did the surgery, I got really lucky because they got all the cancer out. The cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, but they were able to get it out of my lymph nodes. I was very grateful.

After my surgery, I had to do six months of five different chemos. It was intense. Jason Parillo, my boxing coach, would come and visit me every week when I went (for) chemo. He helped me get mentally prepared. He’s like, “Keep your head up, roll with the punches, you know how to do this, Laurie.” It was like a boxing match: Sometimes you win a round and sometimes you lose a round, but you can pick yourself up and push through, which I did. 

I came through the chemo, and I was cancer free. I was like “Woo-hoo!” And then exactly a year later, my tumor markers were going up. It ended up I had cancer in my stomach again and in my liver. Luckily, when I was diagnosed, Hoag had gotten this new radiation machine. It’s the (ViewRay) MRIdian, an MRI with a laser in it. Usually when you have cancer in the stomach where I had it, radiation wouldn’t be able to go there. But with this radiation machine, it would. And instead of getting 30 zaps of radiation like the old one, you’d only get five. 

As soon as I was cancer-free for the second time, two weeks later I was on a plane to Italy. I spent my summer there. My parents were born in Italy, and my dad rebuilt the house that he was born in and we’d go every year.

I came back and my tumor markers went up again. I was like, “Oh, no; not again.” My oncologist (Dr. Tara Seery) is a superstar. I call her my five-star general. I put it in her hands and say, “OK, tell me the game plan.” And she lets me make adjustments. She said, “You know, Laurie, we can do that radiation again.” With the old kind of radiation, I wouldn’t be able to get radiation in my liver because it goes to the whole liver. But because this is laser-directed, it only affects just that spot, so I was able to get radiation again.

Six months later, I got another test and I was cancer-free. Again. The third time. I was so excited, and two weeks later, I was in Italy. Luckily, I was able to get my cancer treatment while I was there. I came back, and I’m still cancer-free. 

I attribute the fact that I’m still here with what I did in boxing. It prepares you mentally and physically. And spiritually, too, because you never give up. I got that all from boxing. It’s that fighting spirit, and the will to win, the will to survive.
—As told to Valerie Takahama

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