Dr. Steven Corso
Internal Medicine, Hemotology, Oncology | Married to Mary Alice 38 Years | Three Sons, Two Daughters-In-Law, Two Grandchildren | Avid Exerciser | Former Marathoner | Christian | Wine Lover | Foodie

In February of 2022, Dr. Steven Corso made an appointment with his dentist when he returned home from a family vacation.

“I had this awful pain in my molar that just wouldn’t go away.” His dentist placed him on an antibiotic for a small abscess associated with a fracture of the molar. Dr. Corso wound up in the emergency room for evaluation when the infection spread throughout his neck. A CT scan was performed.

That morning, a phone call from the radiologist on duty would change his life forever.

“Dr. Corso, I think you have cancer.”

“I thought, no way. You’ve got the wrong guy. I’ve never used tobacco products. I was sure the enlarged lymph node was due to the infection. Even my ENT doctor was skeptical.”

That weekend, Dr. Corso’s father passed away. It was not sudden, and his family knew this day would come, but the timing provided him with the perfect excuse not to focus on his diagnosis.

“The celebrations and family visits offered the distraction I needed to prolong my denial.”

But a week later, he contacted a trusted peer, pulled up the CT scan, and they reviewed it together.

“We agreed that this needed to be looked at.”

Prognosis

Dr. Corso’s ENT recommended a biopsy, which was performed two weeks after he visited the emergency room.

“Now came discovery. Where did the cancer originate? Had it spread from beyond that point? I hoped it was a lymphoma arising from the lymph node, but it wasn’t. The cancer had started on the tonsil but was so small it wasn’t visible. Unfortunately, it had expanded to one of the lymph nodes in my neck.”

This would be his greatest challenge. “How do I separate Dr. Corso from patient Corso?”

“I had to trust the medical team caring for me and let the Dr. part go in my cancer journey.”

Fortunately, the treatment was started quickly and typically is very effective. Dr. Corso began daily radiation and weekly chemo treatments in April of 2022, and it was completed by the end of May. However, it wasn’t without complications, and he was hospitalized twice. Many side effects triggered negative thoughts and feelings.

“Am I going to survive this? How will it impact me later in life?”

A Whole New Outlook

Dr. Corso finished his last radiation treatment at the end of May. As he exited Gibbs Cancer Center’s atrium, he was surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues scattered along the balconies on three floors.

A PET scan in August thankfully showed no signs of cancer.

“You have to rely on the team around you. Frequently, I’ll see patients explore alternative outlets and travel to centers in other locations. I tell people it can be challenging to uproot yourself from friends and family. Had I done this, my journey would have been more challenging. You can find top-notch care here in the Upstate.”

“There isn’t a morning that goes by without me waking up and giving God thanks for having another day. Every day is a gift that I no longer take for granted.”

“Professionally, I’ve always cared for my patients. But the conversations I have with them now have a deeper connection. When I ask, ‘How are you doing…. emotionally?’ I’m much better equipped to have that discussion because I’ve been in their shoes and can relate to what they are thinking.

It’s at this moment in the visit that Dr. Corso will share his letter with them about finding joy in the cancer experience.

“I’m very transparent about my diagnosis and experience. I tell them about my five-second rule. You will have negative thoughts. Your mind will go to some dark, scary places. It’s impossible to avoid them.”

“But if you train yourself to recognize it, address it as such, and move on, you can avoid this trap. Living in the moment is so important.”

Lessons Learned

“Head and neck cancer is ruthless. The mouth is very sensitive to radiation. I’ve participated in nine marathons. I’ve run the Boston Marathon. The pain and difficulty of those events pales in comparison to the pain and suffering experienced in the treatment for this type of cancer.”

“One of the best decisions I made during my treatment is a life lesson that I’ve put into practice every single day since I began treatments—I’m going to treat this like a marathon. I’m going to take it one day or one mile at a time. I’m 100 percent focused on completing the mile I’m currently running. I’m not going to focus on the finish line.”

He may not have known it at the time, but Dr. Corso was mapping out what would become his strategy for living with a heart that is joyful, not anxious, during a cancer journey.

This was the inspiration for the letter Dr. Corso shares with all of his cancer patients.

It notes, “When I was diagnosed with cancer, I assumed it was God’s plan to ‘expand my territory’ again. Throughout my cancer journey, I made several decisions and developed key insights that helped me tremendously. One of the biggest challenges to cancer patients is how to live without fear or anxiety of a bad outcome. Most, if not all, cancer patients live in fear of the recurrence of their cancer. With my years of experience taking care of cancer patients and now with the unique opportunity of being a cancer patient, I have put together a road map to avoid the potholes of doubt, fear, and despair on the cancer journey. It is my sincere desire to share these insights with others.”

Stay in the Moment. Don’t Worry About Tomorrow.

“Worry is going to compound the burden of your fears. It’s a part of the human experience—we all tend to worry. But you must liberate yourself from that worry and devise a strategy to push those thoughts out of your head.”

“For me, it came down to faith. I drew upon my faith to flip the worry switch in my head.

“Cancer Survivors Park reminds me of the blessings of the day. I encourage patients to visit and experience the positive aspects of being a survivor. It’s not about putting their cancer experience behind them but about embracing it and allowing it to create change.”

“Cancer brought me here to this point in my life for a reason, and I’m going to embrace it with an open heart. I’ve always been a faithful person and a practicing Christian. The spiritual component of the human experience is profound. Every morning before I leave for work, I say several prayers. One is the Prayer of Jabez. For those unfamiliar, it goes like this: ‘Oh, that You would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let Your hand be with me and keep me from the evil one.’”

“Everything in life can be approached half full or half empty. I love a great wine and food pairing, but I can’t taste anything sweet anymore. But am I mad about it? No, not for a single second.”

“I consider my diagnosis a blessing. The benefits that have come out of it have been profound. I have this amazing sense of gratitude and a ‘thankful heart’ with less time to be anxious, angry, bitter.”

 

Story by Michael McCullough

Photo by Sliced Tomato Productions