On Saturday, Giacomo Brancato will step out onto the Fairfield Warde court for its home opener with New Milford. It will be exactly a year to the day that he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Brancato played in just the Mustangs’ first two games. His situation resonated with the entire FCIAC basketball community, as Brancato was recognized by teams throughout the league, with many wearing warmup shirts with the word “Undefeatable,” Brancato’s adopted slogan. Brancato spent the ensuing months going through rounds of chemotherapy and fighting the disease at the Connecticut Challenge, a treatment center for cancer survivors in Southport.
Brancato got to train for a day with former Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu, who visited the center last May, and was the honorary co-chairman of the CT Center’s annual fundraising bike ride over the summer. On June 24, Brancato learned he was cancer-free.
Brancato sat down with The Ruden Report this week to discuss his battle, and looking forward to rejoining the Mustangs and playing this season.
The Ruden Report: The most important question everyone wants to know is how are you feeling?
Giacomo Brancato: I’m feeling a lot better. I feel good.
TRR: What has the past year been like for you in terms of the outpouring of support, not just in Fairfield but the entire FCIAC basketball community?
GB: It was great to see all the support. It helped me through it so much. It made it easier on me knowing there were so many people helping me and behind me.
TRR: You have been through such an emotional rollercoaster. Can you describe what the experience was like?
GB: It’s been pretty crazy because I had to go through a lot. A lot of sick days not feeling well. Trying to build it back and get it back for sports.
TRR: What things have you learned about yourself? I would imagine this battle has led to some self-discovery.
GB: I usually am very determined and I used that throughout the whole process. I was determined to beat the disease and beat cancer and be cancer-free at the end of it.
TRR: When the doctor first tells you that you have cancer, what goes through your mind?
GB: Honestly I had no idea what to think. I didn’t know too much about cancer at all because I had no one in my family whose had it or anyone even close to me whose had it. Once I got it, initially it was shock.
TRR: What helped pull you through?
GB: Definitely the community and the support. People telling me that they’re behind me. Most importantly my family. They helped me a lot through it. Like changing my diet.
TRR: Being cancer-free, what things are you doing differently now than a year ago at this time?
GB: During treatment I was eating all organically. Now I’m eating mostly organically but here and there it’s not strictly organic. Just a healthier body. That’s the big difference.
TRR: How often do you have to go for follow-up checkups?
GB: Every month and I just got a scan the other day and a couple of weeks ago and that came back clear so that was good.
TRR: I know you spent a lot of time at the CT Challenge Center for Survivorship in Southport. How important a role did it play in aiding your recovery?
GB: They were all about the healthy lifestyle, working out, exercising after chemo. I’m still continuing to go there. I usually go there Tuesdays and Thursdays. I have a personal trainer so for 30 minutes we will do some training. Strengthening of my core and my lower back. That’s where most of my strength was lost because the chemo side effect is core strength and lower back strength.
TRR: How close back to 100 percent would you say you are?
GB: I’m getting there. I’m about 85. I also rolled my ankle a few weeks ago and that’s holding me back. I think once my ankle heals, maybe in another month or so, I should be close to 100 percent. My stamina is getting there. I don’t think it is 100 percent to what it was but it’s right there. Stamina is better than my strength.
TRR: Was getting on the court for the first day of practice this year different than past years?
GB: It just felt good being back on the court. That was the main thing. It felt good knowing I could play again. The sports I love are basketball and baseball. When baseball comes that will be a good feeling as well.
TRR: Have you envisioned what you think it will be like Dec. 19, when you leave the bench and take the court for the first game and get ready for the opening tip?
GB: I have been thinking about that a lot, especially because that is the day I found out last year. I will be very pumped for that game.
TRR: Are you prepared for the good will that I am sure will return? People are going to be happy to see you back on the court.
GB: I just can’t wait to get back on the court. Everyone’s support helped get me through it. I’m sure the people will be happy as well.
TRR: How about your basketball game? Do you feel your skills are back to where you want them to be?
GB: I don’t think I lost my shooting ability. Maybe a little bit on the driving side but that’s more because my ankle is limited.
TRR: In what ways are you now a different person?
GB: I don’t think I’ve changed too much but now I have the knowledge of what cancer is and taking more things with an open mind. Things like that. It has definitely made me stronger. Before that I think I was pretty strong. People said I had a strong mind. With that experience it just made me like 10 times stronger. If something bad happens the situation could always be worse. One of the things that (president and CEO) Jeff Keith at the Connecticut Challenge said to me that I live by now, he told me at the beginning of my cancer treatments your situation could be worse, you just have to be grateful for what your situations is. Anyone’s situation could be worse. He lost his leg and I didn’t lose my leg. Someone could be dealing with a worse situation.
TRR: Was any part of being the center of attention awkward for you, even though you appreciated the support?
GB: It was a little weird getting a lot of attention but I did like encouraging others not to give up. That’s what I liked about it.
TRR: Are you ready for the season now? What can we expect from Warde?
GB: I’m really looking forward to the season. We don’t have a lot of height but we have players who can shoot the ball. I think we are going to be alright.
— PHOTOS BY MARK CONRAD