Cancer Survivor Uses Second Chance at Life to Give Others the Same
By Steven Knapp
Photo: David Caldarella, Co-Founder & Executive Director of David’s Dream and Believe Cancer Foundation.
In 2010, David Caldarella was living in Jupiter, Florida when he noticed he had trouble swallowing and a lump on his neck. Having planned to visit his parents and sister in New Jersey for Easter, he decided to see his trusted physician as well. Little did he know when he left Jupiter his life was taking off to another planet.
After two appointments with Dr. Engle in which David had a tumorous growth removed as well as a biopsy of the lump on his neck, he would return to the Manahawkin, New Jersey office. Sitting on a patient bed with his parents in two chairs across from the bearer of bad news, the three were not ready for these three words. “You have cancer!” Dr. Engle said. Characteristically, the first thing David thought of was the lives of others rather than his own. “You think more about them more than yourself” Caldarella said referring to his parents. “It hits you like a ton of bricks” he said. “I vividly remember seeing my mom tear up.”
David Caldarella was diagnosed with stage IV Squamous Cell Carcinoma that reached the lymph nodes on the right side of his neck and went down his throat. Even after being told his odds of living were slim David would fight back. And win.
On November 11th, 2010 David officially became a stage IV cancer survivor.
With selflessness second to none, he couldn’t say enough about his friends, family, and the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital staff who supported him through treatment. Especially his surgeon Dr. David Cognetti who he still has an appointment with every year at a Villanova basketball game along with David’s nephew.
After twelve rounds against the heavily favored opponent, this underdog won’t be remembered as much for what he did in the ring as well as for what he continues to do today in the corner of other fighters. David decided to use his second chance at life to make a difference in others. This is where “David’s Dream and Believe Cancer Foundation” began. The phrase “dream and believe” comes from David’s blog that he kept throughout his treatment to update friends and family. At the end of each post he signed off “Dream and Believe” because he had to “have a dream” he would beat the disease and “believe it would happen.” Upon foundation, the organizations goal was to help “1-2 families a year” with financial assistance. To this day David and his team have helped over 550 families and they continue to extend their support far beyond monetary contribution.
Alive and well today, the north jersey native works from the foundations new office in Manahawkin, New Jersey. Just a short drive over the LBI Bridge from where he currently resides in Ship Bottom. The office, much like the simply dressed scruffy bearded man who works in it both scream a quiet word. Humble. Within the plain white walls thrifty items are spared, the plain white chairs were donated along with the desk, which is stacked with grant applications that stare back at David like a bad painting. Satisfied the furniture did not take away a penny from the foundation, he wishes they had the funds to answer every application immediately. More often than not, it’s the midnight phone call that means more than the financial support we offer” Danielle Corso said, who currently serves as the foundations secretary. Corso first offered her help to the foundation while working with David at Jetty when he mentioned “a cancer foundation he was involved with.” “At the time I was not aware that the organization was his own, or that he was a cancer survivor himself – which speaks volumes about who David is at the core of his being.” Corso said. Patients are constantly sent in David’s direction. The majority of whom come through hospitals and nurse navigation. Others come from word of mouth referrals which David describes as “the best” referrals. Dawn, the mother of Elena who was struck with cancer at just 18 months old would testify to that, describing David as “a beacon of hope.” With a “massive” snow storm impending, Dawn did not know how she would be able to get Elena to her chemotherapy treatments in Philadelphia. Knowing driving through the storm or skipping chemo could both have dire consequences, the problem solver did what he does best. Within in an hour of hearing about Dawn and Elena’s perplexing situation, David had arranged for the two to be put in a hotel room directly across the street from the hospital in which Elena received treatment while also renting movies and getting them ice cream. “We want to take away all the stresses of everyday” David said. Treasurer and longtime friend of Caldarella’s, Tim Hall, describes seeing the foundation grow to what is has and continue to become a “blessing.” “We did not anticipate the level to which (DDBCF) could provide a vehicle for generous and caring people to give of their time, talents and treasures – people who want to ensure that strangers receive an injection of hope when they need it most” Hall said. Hall is one of five board members including David, a staff made up entirely of volunteers that David could not be more thankful for.
Not only does David receive help from his directors and volunteers but also the many generous sponsors. Corso helped to forge a partnership with Informed Mortgage in Manahawkin where they donated $25 for every loan they closed out, which added up to $18,000 at the end of 2015! That partnership continues today. “That’s what sustains a small grassroots foundation like us” Caldarella said. The foundation has continued to increase donations, last year the Dream and Believe Foundation brought in $51,000 more than it had the previous year, while also offering patient grants exactly $51,000 more than the previous year. Seeing such a significant increase in donations and making sure every penny of that increase went directly back to the patients without “wasting a single dollar” is something he is proud of. “That’s what you wanna see” David said.
While fundraising is the basis of the foundation, keeping patient’s spirits high is an equally important part of their mission. In order to do so, David usually “falls back on his own story.” “Here I am” he tells people. “Just keep your head down and make your way through it.” While he says theirs “no magic answer” of what to tell people, Caldarella has seemingly made miracles happen like magic in the past through what most would see as minuscule gestures. One day while making a call to a cancer patient in the hospital, David could hear commotion in the background. After twice asking if he should call later, the man said he could talk because he was simply “with his family.” The two spoke for over an hour, hung up and went on with their days. It was not till months later that the two spoke in person at a fundraiser. David was surprised to learn he was not being thanked for his medical bill assistance. “The day we spoke on the phone was the day I was ready to give up” the man said. “But you’re phone call gave me the strength to keep fighting.” Thanks to David’s random phone call that man is alive, cancer free, and still with his family today.
David paused, and then smirked. “That’s what it’s all about” the life saver said.
Unfortunately, not all stories have a happy ending. David says one of the downfalls of the job is that he never imagined that he would “attend as many funerals” as he does. It becomes especially hard for him with how close he gets to the patients and families. “It’s a deadly disease” he says. It makes him wonder “how come I’m here.” But the reason the caregiver is still here is clear. This past November David became five years cancer free, a mark he described as “pretty monumental.” As sentimental as these anniversaries are for him, his life’s work has become dedicated to helping others receive the “the best call ever” referring to being told you are cancer free. “It’s the best thing for all of us, it’s what we work for.” David said.
While the number of people contributing to David’s Dream and Believe Cancer Foundation is constantly growing, the number of people effected by cancer that need their support is far greater. More information on the foundation, where to get involved, and how to donate is on their website Davidsdreamandbelieve.org. Every contribution as large as $18,000 and as small as the gesture of a phone call is equally appreciated to a man as thankful as David Caldarella. And never forget to –
Dream and Believe!