In three short years, high-energy entrepreneur Angelo Giuliano, 31, has built his mobile electronic billboard business into a thriving enterprise with a lock on every major Southern California entertainment venue and staking out new turf in New York. It almost didn’t happen but for his friendship with a UC Irvine oncologist.
Between his early-morning barista job and hawking products at concerts on nights and weekends, Giuliano also was helping his Laguna Beach neighbor, Dr. Leonard Sender, craft an awareness campaign to help young adult and adolescent cancer patients.
Even so, cancer was the last thing on Giuliano’s mind when he began experiencing bouts of fatigue in early 2009. He attributed it to 60-hour work weeks launching his advertising business. Next he noticed persistent itching. He begged his wife to lay off the laundry softener. When that didn’t help, the couple took their pugs to the vet to be checked for fleas.
No fleas. But Giuliano had no time to fret about other causes for his symptoms. He had a business to develop, friends to help and a new marriage to build.
Then in mid-May, Giuliano felt a golf-ball-size bump below his left armpit. He asked a co-worker to take a look. “Angelo,” she told him, “it feels like a swollen lymph node. I think you might have an infection.”
Giuliano jumped on a computer and searched for the terms “swollen lymph nodes” and “itching.” “All these cancer sites popped up,” he recalls. “I was a little concerned, but I thought, no way could I possibly have cancer.”
He mentioned it to his wife, Leah, the next evening, a Saturday. He balked initially when she insisted that he call Sender, not wanting to bother his friend, who was in Massachusetts for his daughter’s college graduation.
“Angelo, I don’t want to alarm you,” the director of UC Irvine's Young Adult Cancer Program told Giuliano, who finally made the call. “But it sounds like Hodgkin's or non-Hodgkin's disease. I want to get you in right away for testing.”
By Monday morning, Sender’s team at UC Irvine’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center was putting Giuliano through a battery of tests. On Wednesday night, Sender called with the results of a needle biopsy: anaplastic large T-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was immediately put on an intensive regimen of chemotherapy to combat the rare and especially aggressive cancer.
At first, Giuliano thought Sender was making sure he got preferential treatment. “I felt like I had a red carpet laid out for me at UC Irvine. Then I came to realize I wasn’t special—everybody is treated the same way.”
The long months of chemotherapy were hard but Giuliano seldom let it slow him down. He was determined to expand his business, all the while preparing for the worst. He wanted to make sure his wife had some financial security.
Giuliano noticed, too, that all of his senses seemed to be heightened. One day as he and Leah lay on the beach, he marveled at the texture of the sand and though how much he’d miss the rich blue of the sky. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’d miss red, too—and the color orange, the sound of the surf. And I’d miss so much the warmth of my wife’s body next to me,’ ” he recalls.
It dawned on him in that moment that it would be Leah who would be feeling these things if he were gone. “I had to know that she would be OK,” he recalls. Then and there, he made her promise that she would remarry, have kids “and enjoy life to the full.”
Several weeks later, scans and tests showed that Giuliano’s lymph nodes were clear of cancer. Sender told him there was a 70 percent to 80 percent chance he would be cured, given his response to the chemotherapy, but he would need to be closely tracked for five years before he could say more.
Almost three years since Giuliano’s diagnosis, the hard-charging businessman has remained free of cancer. He’s hired six fulltime executives and moved with Leah, a marketing manager for a resort hotel chain, to a home in Dana Point. They are saving up to buy their way back into Laguna Beach and start a family within a year.
Giuliano credits the doctor. “Lennie is a lifesaver, truly. It was like I was hanging by one finger from a cliff, about to plummet to my death. He and his team pulled me up and saved my life.”
He’s also still amazed by the coincidence of his volunteer work for Sender’s SeventyK campaign, which aims to raise awareness of—and research funding for—the 70,000 U.S. teens and adults under 40 each year who, like Giuliano, are diagnosed with cancer. Their cancers are especially virulent, says Sender, and they react very differently to standard treatments for small children and people over 40. But this age group is routinely ignored in studies.
As Giuliano prepares to bring his electronic billboards to arenas and concert halls of New York City, he still remembers that moment on the beach with Leah. “I’ll never be able to express in words my appreciation for Dr. Sender,” he says. “Without his friendship and treatment, I would not be here today. It sounds stupid, but cancer has been a gift. I appreciate life so much more.”