Emilio’s Story: After Beating Colorectal Cancer, a Message to Others Never to Wait

March 30, 2023

Emilio Blanco, 40, is no stranger to Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), having worked and lived near the campus for as long as he’s been a New Yorker. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Emilio moved to the city in 2005 after graduating high school. 

“I live in the Bronx now, but when I moved here, I used to live in Washington Heights, so my family has always gone to Columbia,” Emilio says. “Three of my four kids were born at the hospital, and I work now with my father on 162nd street very close by.” 

Emilio with his wife Giselle

Emilio and Giselle Blanco

Despite his familiarity with the hospital, when Emilio started experiencing serious stomach pains, he was hesitant to see a doctor. Instead, he attempted to treat his pain at home with over-the-counter medications. Nothing worked, and luckily, his wife Giselle urged him to seek care. 

In November 2020—in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic-- Emilio went to the emergency room. During that visit, the doctors first suspected that he might have colitis. Further testing prompted a colonoscopy, which showed a blockage that a biopsy later confirmed to be colon cancer. 

“For men, it can be very had to admit that we are experiencing pain,” Emilio says. “We try to handle it when we have pain. It can be very difficult to talk to your family, your wife, or whoever is close to you in your circle and say, ‘oh I’m not feeling well'. The message I want to put out there is if you feel something wrong in your body, don’t wait.” 

Quickly, Emilio’s care was put in the hands of Marco Zoccali, MD, a specialist in colorectal surgery at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. Based on Emilio’s preoperative assessment, there was concern that the tumor might have extended beyond his colon. Emilio underwent a colectomy, removing his tumor along with a portion of his colon and some surrounding tissue. He credits Dr. Zoccali and his team for sticking with him through the entire process, putting him at ease and making sure he understood what was happening every step of the way. The operation was a success but given the blockage and the extent of the tumor Emilio required a stoma, which is an opening commonly made in the abdomen during colon surgery to allow waste to be diverted out of the body during recovery.


The Path Back to a Normal Life

Emilio, his wife, and their four children.

Emilio, Giselle, and their four children.

After surgery, to minimize the chances of the tumor coming back, Emilio began a chemotherapy regimen led by Dr. Ruth White, a medical oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. He was also referred to a genetic counselor to assess any potential predisposition he had for developing colorectal cancer, which could potentially have been passed on to his children. One of the biggest challenges of his recovery was explaining everything to his young kids. Having to keep his distance from them for fear of getting an infection or contracting COVID-19 was also difficult for Emilio, who loves being outdoors and active with his children. 

Fortunately, after a year of treatment, Emilio received fantastic news. Thanks to his surgery and chemotherapy, he had remained cancer free, and Dr. Zoccali was able to reverse the stoma he had created during surgery with a minimally invasive procedure. Today, Emilio shows no evidence of disease and says he feels back to his old self. 

“I never in my life thought that the pain I was feeling could be cancer, but I’m really happy with the way my team took care of me,” Emilio says. “I’m glad in that moment that my wife made me go to the hospital, and thank God they found out what I had.”