BRICK – In February 2017, Councilwoman Marianna Pontoriero was told by doctors at Sloan Kettering that she only had a 30 percent chance of living after being diagnosed with stage 4A oral cavity cancer, a rare and debilitating form of head and neck cancer that accounts for five percent of all cancer cases in the United States.
“At 43 years old, that was a hard pill to swallow,” Pontoriero said during the Nov. 13 council meeting.
Pontoriero’s treatment included the removal of a tumor from her tongue and from the floor of her mouth that required reconstructive surgery. She also needed help from experts trained in rehabilitation for speech, chewing and swallowing.
In late March, Pontoriero underwent a glossectomy when doctors removed a substantial part of her tongue. She also underwent a procedure, a radical forearm flap, where doctors took skin and tissue from her forearm to rebuild her tongue.
“When I asked the doctor what my chances were of speaking again, he told me 10 percent. That was an even harder pill to swallow, but I knew I’d still have my hands – I’m Italian, so I knew I could make it through,” she joked.
Pontoriero was on a ventilator, and radiation destroyed her thyroid and left her skin with significant burns. She has lost over one-third of her body weight as a result of the significant challenges of eating, drinking and swallowing.
During the council meeting, Mayor John G. Ducey called Pontoriero “a force of nature,” and presented her with a Patient Courage Award from the Mayors Committee on Life Sciences, an initiative designed to highlight inspiring patients in the state.
“Marianna is a devoted wife, mother of three young children, successful attorney and dedicated community servant who serves as a councilwoman here in the township of Brick as well as a member of the Ocean Harbor House Board of Directors,” Ducey said.
He said Pontoriero was determined to stay strong for her family and was fiercely determined to battle the disease.
“The fight was not just about cancer, it was about continuing to be present and strong for her family as well as all the families she helps throughout the community,” Ducey said.
The mayor said that Pontoriero would be creating a new community task force specifically for those who are faced with a cancer diagnosis.
“Her approach has been to de-stigmatize the journey, especially when radiation and chemotherapy destroy a person physically,” he said.
During the Aug. 8, 2017 council meeting, Pontoriero donned her radiation mask and told people about her journey, and she explains her speech difficulties and her scars in a way that makes others feel comfortable, Ducey said.
“She did not take a break from her community commitments during her diagnosis and treatment. While she was unable to attend every meeting or event, she found a way to attend most,” he said. “Many times she was physically exhausted, but forged ahead because she was so inspired by the love and support she received and was able to give to others.”
Pontoriero credited the support of her extended family for surviving “this horrendous disease…when I looked around at Sloan Kettering and I saw all the people who were sitting there without someone to hold their hand my heart just broke for them,” she said.
She endured radiation treatments, and a14-hour surgery followed by additional surgery after a vein burst in the back of her neck, but she said she always had a family member there to hold her hand.
“This committee that I’m forming is for someone who doesn’t have someone to hold their hand, or have someone to take them to their radiation or chemotherapy treatments because people on pain medication can’t drive,” she said.
The Mayor’s Committee on Life Sciences recognizes remarkable individuals who have triumphed over adversity despite difficulties due to a serious illness or chronic disease with their patient courage award, Ducey said.
“Marianna’s strength, courage, perseverance and her commitment to her family and our community throughout the year have been an inspiration to every person who knows her,” he said.
In addition to the Patient Courage Award, Mayor Ducey proclaimed Friday, Nov. 17 as Marianna Pontoriero Day, for displaying “real Wonder Woman courage throughout her cancer treatment and being an inspiration to patients across New Jersey.”
The next council meeting will be on Dec. 5 at 7 p.m.