Worrying symptoms that started on a family vacation brought Bill to a urologist — and his desire for the best treatment possible brought him to Memorial Sloan Kettering. Our bladder cancer experts removed and re-created his bladder in a procedure that allowed him to retain normal urinary function. He’s back to living the life he loves and raising awareness of the disease in his new role as mayor of a New Jersey town.
Bill Laforet was on his way to a weeklong beach vacation with his family in the summer of 2008 when a quick trip to a rest stop cast a worrisome shadow over the getaway. Bill, an extroverted then-57-year-old who owns an auto repair shop in Mahwah, New Jersey, felt like his normally healthy self, but he was urinating a troublesome amount of blood. “I think I gave the guy next to me a heart attack,” he says. “But eventually it went away, and I thought, brilliant – it’s gone.”
Once he returned home from the trip, he was still bothered enough by the incident to see a local urologist, who told him he was fine and to return in six months. But Bill’s son pressed him to seek a second opinion from Memorial Sloan Kettering urologic surgeon Bernard Bochner.
“I went through all these tests thinking that no one was going to tell me any different, that I’m fine,” Bill says.
So what Dr. Bochner had to say shocked him: Bill had bladder cancer. “He talked to me in simple terms that I could understand,” Bill says. “He told me it was still at an early stage, and that I had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving if I did nothing. And he recommended I have an operation.”
Out with the Old, In with the Neo
The procedure Dr. Bochner suggested to Bill was a neobladder urinary diversion, in which he removes the bladder and then re-creates it using a section of the small intestine that he connects to the urethra. This operation allows patients to continue to urinate normally rather than depend on an external urine collection bag.
Memorial Sloan Kettering surgeons perform approximately 250 radical cystectomy and urinary tract reconstructive operations a year, making the institution a high-volume center for the procedure, says Dr. Bochner. The level of experience of both the surgeon and the hospital is closely linked with how successful the operation is, he adds.
Despite the seriousness of the surgery, Bill didn’t hesitate to take Dr. Bochner’s advice. “He was very thoughtful and truthful,” Bill describes. “He told me, ‘You’re going to go to sleep, I’m going to build you a new bladder, and you’re going to wake up and recover.’”
“He also said that no good doctor will ever hurt you, and that’s what men fear — getting hurt. I knew I was in the hands of the world’s best, so I trusted him completely.”
Bill’s operation in November 2008 was a success, and he credits the doctors and staff at Memorial Sloan Kettering with making the process as smooth as possible. “From the person who washed the floors to the person who made my bed to the doctors and nurses – they all made me feel optimistic that everything was going to be OK,” he says.
A Small Setback
Bill returned home to recuperate with his wife, children, and grandchildren. But during his recovery process, he contracted a serious abdominal infection and had to return to the hospital for treatment.
“It was a complication of the surgery,” he says. “Not everyone gets it. It was a scary time.” The setback delayed his recovery, which took about six months, but eventually he was back to his normal, presurgery life.
Dr. Bochner says that severe complications such as Bill’s happen infrequently. “This is not a small operation,” he says. “But it can be done safely in the vast majority of people who are good candidates for it.”
From Patient to Public Office
Then Bill’s story took an interesting twist: A longtime resident of Mahwah, he had always been involved with the local community through his business as well as fund-raising for various causes.
In November 2011, the mayor of the town unexpectedly passed away. Bill’s good friend, who happened to be the chief of police, encouraged him to run for the post. “I was connected to the comings and goings of town, but I thought, oh, yeah, sure I’ll run,” he says.
But after some serious consideration and the positive feedback of other friends and neighbors, Bill ran for the mayor’s seat and won 67 percent of the vote — the largest margin of victory by a mayor in the state that year, he says
Sharing an Important Lesson
As mayor, Bill has a new platform for spreading the message he wants all men to hear: Don’t let fear or shame keep you from taking care of your health.
“Urinary issues are embarrassing, and men tend to not want to deal with it. They are cursed by the fact that they think a visit to the urologist is too difficult. They know the procedure and they dread it. But all your fears are killing you,” he says.
“It’s time people start talking about it. My story has made people aware of a lot of things,” he adds. “Men have walked into my shop and asked me questions about their health.”
Dr. Bochner emphasizes the value of early treatment. “It’s just devastating to watch people who are misinformed, and just really scared that they’re not going to be able to enjoy their lives if they push forward with definitive treatment. As a result, they sometimes make a bad treatment decision, and then end up suffering the consequences,” he says.
Back to Health — and Life
After losing a significant amount of weight following the surgery, Bill put on a few pounds — but didn’t realize the seriousness of his lapse until he saw Dr. Bochner at his yearly checkup. “He said to me, ‘So I saved you from cancer, but you’re going to die of a heart attack?’ It showed me that the doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering have concern and care for their patients way beyond surgery. It isn’t over when you recover.”
That concern is just one more reason Bill is so appreciative of the doctor that changed — and saved — his life. “He’s a pretty special guy,” Bill says of Dr. Bochner. “I don’t know how I’ll ever repay that sense of debt.”
Bill took to heart his friend and doctor’s wisdom once again and dropped back down to a healthy weight. “I lead a healthier lifestyle now,” he says. “Health wasn’t a big part of my life before, but it is now.”