Veteran thankful this season despite cancer diagnosis

November 09, 2018
Joe Coen poses with his three daughters Emma, Olivia and Meredith (left to right). Photo by Emma Vought.
Joe Coen poses with his three daughters Emma, Olivia and Meredith (left to right). Photo by Emma Vought.

Veteran Joe Coen knows a thing or two about keeping his cool.

As a nuclear engineering officer on a ballistic missile submarine in the height of the Cold War, he was a leader of highly skilled young men who would spend two to three months at a time on the water with 160 warheads and 10 missiles prepared to launch.

Not since his time in the service has he experienced such efficient and coordinated teamwork as recently when he found himself spending a lot of time at Hollings Cancer Center, he said. Thinking he just had a bad case of acid reflux, the father of three learned last November that instead he had stage 4 metastatic stomach cancer. He left the doctor’s office and searched online to figure out what that was.

He immediately regretted it, given the scary information online.

Consulting with Hollings Cancer Center physician and researcher Gerard Silvestri, M.D., Coen embarked on a long process that included 20 chemotherapy treatments and countless scans, biopsies and surgeries. “I've had several rounds of chemotherapy with different drug cocktails over the last year. Some have worked well, some not so well, but I've been fortunate that my particular brand of cancer has a profile that allows me to pursue immunotherapy,” he said.

“I've had my second dose of immunotherapy just recently, so I'm hoping that this new and for many people positive form of therapy will give me a higher quality of life and a longer life.”

He knows not many people recover from this kind of diagnosis easily. He’s grateful for the time he has had, aware that more than half of the people who got a similar diagnosis last November already have passed away. So far innovative cancer treatment has enabled him to: 

  • See his youngest daughter graduate from high school and start her first year of college
  • Watch his future son in law graduate from law school
  • Experience his three daughters growing into young women with grace and dignity

It also allowed him to be the featured speaker at the recent 23rd Annual Hollings Cancer Center Golf Tournament. On Saturday, he was getting a feeding tube, and the following Monday he was on the golf course with his friends to raise money.

“I was honored to be the honoree patient for this year's annual golf tournament, and I thought it was important to tell my story so that those people who are not familiar with cancer or not familiar with the process would have an accurate or a true perspective that you don't often get. It was important for me to do that.”

Coen said a major motivating factor that keeps him going is the outstanding support he has from loved ones, including his daughters Olivia, Emma and Meredith. And, he has new friends. Instead of dreading infusion, he looks forward to checking in with staff, many of whom have become like a second family.

“Perhaps the most impactful reason I continue to beat the odds is the marriage of this motivation with professional and exceedingly competent care. The Hollings Cancer Center and doctors, the experience I’ve had there, is unbelievable. HCC is a treasure in our community. It has made all the difference in my life this year.”

Cancer gets personal in that treatment regimens have to be customized. “For each patient, it's a journey that they walk with you, and they stay with you through the process of picking the right drugs and making sure that your body's tolerating and making sure that you have the nutrition and the hydration and all the things that cancer patients have to deal with.”

Coen finds it’s easier to stay positive by not thinking about his illness and continuing to find what it is that makes him passionate in life and pursuing it, even if it’s in smaller measures.

“Frankly, I think you have to go on and live your life, and you know sometimes there are inconveniences, and you don't feel good, and you have side effects, but they're just in the way of you living your life. I think if you lose the passion to live your life, then the cancer wins.”