A former head and neck cancer patient at Mass Eye and Ear wanted to help fellow patients take back priceless moments lost to their disease. Donating tickets to see the New England Patriots, he thought, was the least he could do.
Joe Aliberti loves the New England Patriots. For two decades, his favorite team has rewarded him and his family with Sunday afternoons full of championship moments. The season tickets he renews each fall, he insists, always seem to make the moments a little sweeter.
Two years ago, however, what started as a small toothache nearly robbed him of future Sundays at Gillette Stadium, let alone a future at all.
The pain began in the left side of his jaw and, after multiple visits to his dentist, refused to go away. It was only when he visited a doctor in Boston that he discovered the root of the problem: stage-four jaw cancer. Over the course of a full-day surgery at Mass Eye and Ear, head and neck surgeons Derrick Lin, MD, FACS, and Jeremy Richmon, MD, FACS, removed the tumor and reconstructed the left side of his jaw with a piece of bone from his leg held in place by titanium plates.
Joe was declared cancer-free shortly after and—apart from a partial loss of sensation in his jaw—had escaped the disease relatively unscathed. His mindset, however, had changed forever.
“I chewed tobacco for more than 40 years,” said Joe, who admitted to ignoring constant warnings from family and friends. “There are people who do all the right things but still end up being dealt the same hand. I was determined to make the most of my second chance.”
Joe found his opportunity at a local fundraiser for a golf tournament in June 2022. The event, hosted by NBC Sports Patriots beat writer Tom E. Curran, challenged participants to raise money for pediatric cancer research by signing up to play 100 holes. Joining Curran was Jeff Howe, a sportswriter for The Athletic who himself had beaten cancer several years prior. Hearing Jeff tell his story at the fundraiser stirred Joe in a way few other stories could.
“Jeff was this national sportswriter who, despite covering news 24/7, had given up so much of his time to advocate for charity—what was I doing to make a difference?” he asked himself. Then, he remembered his season tickets. “I could always bring a child to a Patriots game.”
A terrifying diagnosis
In March 2021, Jaden Thackston was a senior in high school when she injured her jaw playing ice hockey in New Hampshire. After weeks of lingering pain, she was sent to Massachusetts General Hospital for a biopsy of her jawbone. Days later, she was asked to return to Boston to meet with a team of head and neck surgical oncologists led by Mark Varvares, MD, FACS, chief of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery at Mass Eye and Ear, and Dr. Richmon. She was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
“I don’t like to think about what might have happened if my cancer had been caught any later,” said Jaden. “I was just getting ready to go to college in Philadelphia, but that all of a sudden became the least of my worries.”
Jaden began chemotherapy at Mass General that June, only weeks after her high school graduation. Her treatment continued until the following September, when Drs. Varvares and Richmon removed a portion of her jaw and crafted a new one using pieces of her leg’s fibula. During her recovery, she enrolled in online classes at a community college and restarted chemotherapy for an additional four months – her last round of treatment in February 2022.
“The experience was very hard but the staff at Mass General and Mass Eye and Ear always found a way to go above and beyond to keep my spirits up,” said Jaden, who at 18 years old was often the youngest patient receiving care in the adult ward.
According to Jaden’s mom, Abby, the nursing and administrative staff celebrated her birthday and hosted parties during the holidays. They would also ask Jaden about her favorite Boston sports team. She was an avid Patriots fan, and the clinicians on her floor were always surprised to learn that she had never been to a game.
Learning to pay it forward
Days after attending the June golf tournament, Joe reached out to Tom E. Curran and Jeff Howe on Facebook to discuss his idea. The sportswriters directed him to The Jimmy Fund, which could help Joe find children with cancer who were interested in attending a Patriots game. By October, the organization had connected Joe with several different families, each of whom had an opportunity to watch a game in Joe’s seats.
“No child should ever have to go through what I went through,” said Joe, a father of three. “They have their entire lives ahead of them. The least I could do was help them take back a moment of their childhood, if even for a single Sunday.”
The emails Joe received from parents after each game validated his mission. Photos of children smiling from ear-to-ear and cheering alongside the crowd reminded Joe of the priceless memories he had experienced so many times before. He was determined to make those moments a reality for so many more.
Thinking back to his own surgery at Mass Eye and Ear, Joe emailed Dr. Richmon’s office. He had decided to donate the rest of his season tickets that fall and figured he’d ask the staff if they knew of any young patients interested in attending a game. When Vanessa Aguilar, Dr. Richmon’s administrative assistant, read Joe’s email, she couldn’t help but think of one patient in particular: Jaden.
The perfect play
On November 20, 2022, Jaden sat inside Gillette Stadium. Her first-ever Patriots game had come down to the wire. Tied 3-3 to the New York Jets, the Pats had a final opportunity to return a punt with seconds left in regulation. She held her breath and kept her eyes locked on the ball. It swirled in the late-afternoon air for what felt like an eternity.
Then, the unexpected happened. From 80 yards away, a rookie fielded the punt, dodged past 11 defenders and raced into the end zone for a touchdown. Game over. Jaden and the crowd erupted in a frenzy.
“I’ve watched countless Patriots games, but that was one of the most incredible endings I’d ever seen,” said Joe, who had tailgated the game with a few of his friends. “It’s the kind of moment that lasts forever, and I couldn’t be happier knowing that Jaden got to see it from my seats.”
In January 2023, Jaden began her sophomore year at UMass Amherst, where she plans to study public health. While she has never met Joe in person, she will never forget the thrilling Sunday afternoon he afforded her. More importantly, she is proud to say they now share more than one thing in common: Jaden is cancer-free.
“I’m really excited to go back to school in person,” she said. “My road has not been easy, but it has been full of kindness from so many different friends, family and strangers. And, for that kindness, I am forever grateful.”
Caring for Jaden inspired Dr. Varvares to write an Op-Ed in JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery: How Far We Have Come.