North Bergen coach Bianco back after tough diagnosis
It all began pretty innocently last March, when Kevin Bianco was having lunch in the North Bergen High School cafeteria.
“I had some blurred vision,” said Bianco, the young and energetic head boys’ basketball coach at North Bergen. “Then my vision just went.”
So Bianco did what he thought was the smart move. He went to a local ophthalmologist to have his eyes checked.
“The doctor checked me out and said that I had some brain hemorrhaging going on,” Bianco said. “She told me that I had to see a specialist, because she was pretty sure that I had either anemia or leukemia.”
Bianco didn’t know what to think.
“It was pretty scary,” Bianco said. “I went to another eye doctor in Wayne and I got a quick diagnosis after a blood test.”
Sure enough, Bianco’s biggest fears became reality. He had chronic myelogenous (or myeloid) leukemia.
“We didn’t have any cancer in my family history, so it was very weird,” Bianco said. “I was just pretty much scared.”
In years past, if one received a diagnosis of leukemia, it was usually a death sentence.
“No one could give me any answers,” Bianco said. “The following day, I was losing my vision bad. I couldn’t see at all.”
Bianco first reached out to long-time North Bergen athletic trainer Ira Wolfe for answers. Wolfe has many friends who are physicians.
But then, the wife of North Bergen High Principal Paschal “Pat” Tennaro came through.
“She’s a nurse at the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Center in New York and she was able to get me in,” Bianco said. “They checked my blood work and that afternoon, it was confirmed I had leukemia. I just didn’t know what type right away.”
Later that same day, Bianco ended up in New York University Medical Center to begin his treatment against the hideous disease.
“A normal white blood cell count is around 10,000 or so,” Bianco said. “Mine was at 240,000. It had gone through the roof.”
Bianco was asked if he had any symptoms prior to the blurred vision.
“I was just fatigued, but I figured that was because it was basketball season,” Bianco said. “I figured the fatigue was normal due to basketball. I was still eating, but I realized it was smaller portions.”
As it turned out, Bianco’s spleen was swollen so much that it was pushing against his stomach.
“That was the reason why I wasn’t eating normally,” he said.
In the first few moments that he sat in the NYU Medical Center emergency room, Bianco thought of his own mortality. It’s natural when someone is given a cancer diagnosis. It’s usually the first thing that runs through one’s mind.
“I figured I was only 31 years old and never sick before a day in my life,” Bianco said. “I never did anything wrong. I didn’t deserve this.”
But doctors told Bianco that there was hope.
“They told me right away that it was treatable,” Bianco said. “I wasn’t aware that there was a cure. The blurred vision scared me, but the diagnosis made me nervous.”
However, doctors remained upbeat with Bianco. His age played in his favor. So did his athletic background.
“They put me on medication right away, then started to do a process where they recycled my blood,” Bianco said. “They took my blood, cleaned it out and put it back in again.”
During the whole process, Bianco said that he had only one negative period.
“I had one trying episode,” Bianco said. “I was feeling fine, but my body started to reject the platelet transfusion. My body started shaking and I needed oxygen. It was really scary.”
Bianco remained in NYU Medical Center for only five days.
“My blood cell count went down and they said I was able to go home,” Bianco said. “Within a week after that, I was back to work. I had to take the medication, a 400 milligram pill once a day. I’m probably going to have to take that for the rest of my life.”
It’s basically the same process that basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is undergoing as he also battles CML. The drug is called Gleevec, and it has given many a leukemia survivor hope for a long life.
Bianco did not need extensive chemotherapy, although his daily medication contains chemo treatments. He also did not require a bone marrow transplant operation like most leukemia patients now have to endure, but all of his older brothers were on call, waiting to be possible donors.
Bianco is currently cancer free. He has to be regularly monitored by doctors, to see whether there might be a recurrence or relapse.
“My next doctor visit is in February,” Bianco said. “I’m hoping everything is well.”
Bianco is also back on the North Bergen sideline, coaching his basketball team, like nothing ever happened. But his miraculous recovery and heartwarming story has not gone unnoticed by his players.
“We definitely draw a lot of inspiration from him,” said senior forward Noel Allen, a 6-foot-6 sharpshooter who is one of the top players in Hudson County and a sure-fire college prospect. “When we heard about Coach Bianco’s illness, we definitely feared the worst. We thought he might not be able to come back and might not coach us. But we’re trying our best and we’re doing it for him.”
“I think we were all kind of shocked when we learned,” said fellow senior Danny Abreu. “We were all really worried. But when he came back, it really gave us a lift. We’re all happy he’s back and happy he’s healthy.”
The Bruins, led by Allen and Abreu, currently own a 4-1 record. Allen averages around 18 points per game. Abreu, an off-guard, scores around 12 points per contest. Justin Glennon is a 6-5 forward who adds strength down low. A pair of players named Rodriguez, Chris and Gio (not related) are the other top Bruin performers.
“We’re doing fairly well,” Bianco said. “I think our guard play needs to be more consistent. Most of our players are returnees, so they should know what I want.”
Kevin Bianco is speaking and acting like a coach again. It’s like the illness never really happened.
“I feel very fortunate,” Bianco said. “I have friends and family that really care about me and showed their concern. That made me feel good. Everyone was really worried for me. I really enjoy being with the kids every day. I know this humbled me a lot. I know I can never take anything for granted ever again. It’s a very humbling experience. I put things in their proper perspective. I know what’s important now and what’s not. I believe someone up there is watching over me. I have been given a second chance, even though I know I didn’t do anything wrong. Everything has more meaning now.”
Added Bianco, “I know that it’s something I have to live with now. It’s never going to go away. But I’m still here and still coaching. That has made it all so very rewarding.” – Jim Hague
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