Father-Daughter Wedding Dance
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Katie, a recreation therapist at a New Jersey children’s hospital, describes her dad, Michael, as “a great guy and an even greater dad. We shared a love of Disney World, history, travel, and music—especially the Beatles….Most importantly, he was a lover of family.”
While family was Michael’s top priority, music was his life’s passion. He was a talented guitarist who had played professionally until he settled down with his wife to raise their family. He built a music studio in their home, and growing up, Katie has heartwarming memories of singing with him, his voice a close match to the Beatles’ John Lennon.
During the summer of 2009, everything abruptly changed for the Stoppiello family when Katie, her parents, and her older brother were on a vacation in Lake George, and Michael became jaundiced. Alarmingly, Michael also started losing weight without trying to. He spent the 4th of July at the hospital, anxiety mounting within the close-knit family as doctors worked to determine the cause of the jaundice and the weight loss.
Michael was diagnosed with stage II pancreatic cancer when he was only 51, and Katie was just 18 and a first-year college student. “I had never heard of pancreatic cancer, and cancer wasn’t something that was even on my radar, because my dad was so young and healthy,” Katie shared. She turned to her college roommate, who had lost her mother to cancer a few years prior, for support. She found school to be a solace, throwing herself into her studies so she had something else to focus on besides pancreatic cancer.
Soon after this devastating diagnosis, Michael underwent a Whipple procedure—a complicated surgery that removes part of the stomach, the duodenum, the head of the pancreas, part of the bile duct, the gallbladder, and lymph nodes—followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Katie was overjoyed when he went into remission, and for nearly a year, life went back to a semblance of normal, and that first Christmas was filled with family memories and photos to mark the day.
Then, on Christmas in 2010, Michael wasn’t feeling well enough to celebrate the holiday with his family. Instead of gathering with relatives, they spent the day in the emergency room, terrified but trying to enjoy the Christmas dinner Katie’s best friend brought to the hospital. Doctors told them the worst news imaginable; not only had Michael’s cancer returned, but it was now stage 4, meaning it had metastasized. In early 2011, Michael came home from the hospital for the last time. He never complained and continued to live his life and put his family first, despite his diagnosis—the epitome of bravery and selflessness. In February, he passed away in hospice.
“I am so proud to be my dad’s daughter. He instilled in me the strength and power to fight, as he so valiantly did. Since his passing, my mom and I have dedicated our time and energy to fighting alongside the Lustgarten Foundation each year,” Katie said. “Being involved with the Lustgarten Foundation has helped us heal from the trauma of losing a parent and a husband, and we love that the Foundation directs 100% of donations to research.”
Katie discovered the Lustgarten Foundation through her aunt, who participated in the Monmouth County, NJ Walk for Pancreatic Cancer Research, and introduced Katie and her mom to the event. Katie and her mom created their team, Miles 4 Michael, and then started volunteering at the survivors’ tent. They now manage the raffle, raising over $2,000 every year in basket/raffle donations. Katie loves recruiting her friends and neighbors to help with the baskets and posting on her social media every year to increase awareness of the Walk and the urgent need for pancreatic cancer research.
“My favorite part of the Walk is seeing more and more survivors every year, hearing their inspirational stories, and connecting with others who have been impacted by pancreatic cancer. We absolutely don’t want other families to experience that fear, anguish, and loss like our family did,” Katie said.
Katie is getting married next spring, and as a surprise, her bridesmaids organized a meaningful donation to the Lustgarten Foundation in lieu of party favors at her bridal shower. Now, Katie found the perfect way to incorporate her dad into the wedding day. A few years after Michael passed away, Katie was surprised to find a cassette with recordings of her dad singing the popular Beatles songs “In My Life” and “And I Love Her”—a song he sang to Katie’s mom on their wedding day. Katie’s brother will walk her down the aisle, and her uncle will have the honor of the father-daughter dance with her while her father’s recording of “And I Love Her” plays from the cassette, a beautiful reminder of the unbreakable bond between father and daughter.
“Pancreatic cancer robbed me of the chance to dance with my dad at my upcoming wedding, but it hasn’t robbed me of all of the wonderful memories I made with him while he was still here and it hasn’t robbed me of hope for an eventual cure. It’s why I continue to walk and fight year after year and why I will NEVER give up,” Katie shared. “Research is key, which is why I am a proud supporter of the Lustgarten Foundation, and I am so grateful to everyone who continues to fight and walk alongside us each year. We will keep going until we find a cure.”