Dr. Cappello's Blog Post: Macaroni, Gravy and Breast Cancer: A Meaningful Collision in Honor of my Italian Heritage

A symbolic collision of my birthplace, my Italian heritage, and my advanced-stage breast cancer diagnosis in 2004 occurred more than 60 years after my birth. I was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, the second of four children to Antoinette and Stephen Marcucci. My maternal grandmother and paternal great grandparents said ‘arrivederci’ to their families and their homeland of Italy to immigrate to the United States to achieve the American Dream. With little money and a very limited, if any, English vocabulary, they possessed a grandiose spirit as they embraced their new homeland - America - the land of opportunity.

Never shying away from hard work, my ancestors’ daily struggles, with baby steps towards achievement, laid the foundation of my parents’ work-ethic and values with my siblings and me as the beneficiaries. Along with their one trunk of possessions as they crossed the Atlantic, my ancestors carried their Italian traditions and their strong family bond to America.

My Dad and Mom circa 1947

One favorite memory is of my parents and siblings attending mass on Sunday morning, followed by a feast at my paternal grandparents’ home which included an abundance of macaroni and gravy, or sauce as it’s known in America, including hand rolled meatballs and stuffed flank steak, known as braciole, kept together by white string and simmering for hours in the gravy. With my fork in my right hand and a thick slice of freshly baked Divigard’s Italian bread in my left hand, I was in heaven. On a few lucky Sundays, while the gravy and meat were bubbling on the stove, my siblings and I would hover in the kitchen and plead for ‘bread and gravy,’ thick Italian bread topped with sizzling gravy sprinkled with a heap of Romano cheese to hold us over until dinner.

Then came the dessert - fresh fruit and nuts for everyone while the adults sipped on Anisette and espresso. My least favorite part was when the Sunday dinner would finally end and my sister and I would be compelled to join the ladies to clear the table and do the dishes, while the men smoked cigars and talked family gossip and current events.

Circa 1962 with my brother Mark borrowing one of the men’s cigars while I escaped as the girls were doing the dishes!

In 1922, in Waterbury, Connecticut Anthony Vastola, a physician, founded the Italian-American Charitable Organization, UNICO, which translates to mean ‘one’ and ‘unique.’ The goal of the organization is to highlight the accomplishments of Italian-Americans to make all of its members better American citizens. I first learned about UNICO when I was dating my husband Joe in 1970. His dad, Anthony ‘Tony’ Cappello was a member of UNICO. Born in Waterbury, CT in 1918 to Italian immigrants, at an early age, Tony and his mother and brother returned to Ruviano, Italy, his mother’s village, and resided there for several years before returning to Waterbury. Tony easily assimilated to his new homeland, playing with his abundance of cousins and even became an altar boy.

Joe’s dad was a proud Italian and Marine and committed to UNICO’s tenets of community service. He served in the Waterbury Chapter, as President, District Governor to the National Office, and was honored as ‘man of the year.’ At his funeral in 2006, UNICO members assembled with a tribute to Tony for his service to UNICO and his country. Joe and I visited Ruviano twice since my father in law’s passing and met my husband’s second cousins and their children. We didn’t waste a moment, despite our language barriers, to enjoy life’s precious moments with multiple Italian dinners, with our recently discovered Italian family.

My father in law ‘Tony’ a few months before his passing in 2006 w/my husband Joe.

Our cousins in front of Joe’s Nonni’s home in Ruviano Italy

In 2004, I was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer. Shocked that my cancer had metastasized to 13 lymph nodes and was the size of a quarter, I asked my team of doctors, with my latest ‘normal’ mammogram report in hand, how could this happen since I just had a normal mammogram. Each of them told me that my cancer was hidden by mammogram because of my dense breast tissue. After an extensive search of the literature, which existed for decades before my diagnosis, I learned that 40% of women have dense breast tissue, that mammograms are limited in ‘seeing’ cancer in dense breasts and that there are other technologies, such as ultrasound or MRI that can significantly ‘see’ cancers that are invisible by mammogram. When I asked my docs to report dense breast tissue to women in our community, each of them refused.

My Italian heritage with our tenets of truth and justice immediately kicked in. My doctors’ rejection led to action when in 2009, Connecticut became the first state in America to report dense breast tissue to the patient through the mammography report. As of today, thirty-one states have a density reporting law.

One of 8 'chemo' infusions 3 months before my 11th NORMAL mammogram

Last week, I was honored by UNICO at its national convention with the 2017 Americanism Award for my breast health advocacy through the work of our two non profit organizations, Are You Dense Inc. and Are You Dense Advocacy Inc. The Americanism award recognizes an Italian-American who has made an enduring impact on humanity which encompasses the cornerstone of UNICO’s foundation. When I received notice of this prestigious honor, I bowed to give thanks to my parents and my Italian ancestors, who paved the way for me to relentlessly pursue an early diagnosis for women with dense breast tissue, through the democratic process, turning an injustice to justice for women’s breast health.

It was a wonderful evening in Scottsdale, AZ as I was awarded a red, white and green ribbon with the ‘Americanism’ medal for my unplanned advocacy which began out of my personal tragedy of a missed, delayed and advanced-stage breast cancer diagnosis. It was inspiring to be with other national honorees and hear their compelling stories of their families and proud Italian heritage. I am now old enough to give an Anisette Salute to my Health, America, and my rich Italian heritage - Salute a cent’anno!

Unico National President Tom Vaughn, Me, My husband Joe and Unico National Secretary Francine Nido

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