From Patient to Supporter: Helping Others Navigate a Cancer Diagnosis


Photo of Cancer Buddies

Pete Lonngren (center), with fellow Cancer Buddies Jerry Mintzer (left) and Lou Lanza (right).

As an Air Force and commercial airline pilot, Pete Lonngren’s top priority had always been safety. So in 2007 when he discovered a swollen lymph node in his neck, he knew he had to follow his instincts and take action for the sake of his health.

Lonngren, an Indiana native who has lived in South Jersey for the past 40 years, consulted with his primary care physician, who recommended that he visit Jefferson’s Department of Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery for further evaluation.

It turned out that the swollen lymph node was due to cancer at the base of Lonngren’s tongue — a diagnosis he received from William Keane, MD, Chair of the Department of Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Keane performed a selective neck dissection surgery on Lonngren, and afterward Lonngren received radiation treatment and finally chemotherapy from Rita Axelrod, MD, Co-director of Jefferson’s Thoracic Oncology Program.

“I had a great medical team of the best doctors, nurses and technicians to guide me through my treatment,” Lonngren said. Luckily, he felt healthy enough to return to work a year after his initial diagnosis. He still sees Keane every six months for regular check-ups and to make sure the cancer has not returned.

Unfortunately, this was not his only experience with cancer, and he found himself back at Jefferson in 2016 — this time because of prostate cancer. He underwent a radical prostatectomy, performed by Leonard Gomella, MD, FACS, Chair of the Department of Urology. He has also been treated at Jefferson for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma of the skin.

During one of his many visits to Jefferson, Lonngren met social worker Kate Rehm, who asked him if he would be interested in becoming a volunteer for the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center Buddy Program. The Buddy Program pairs current patients with volunteers who have gone through a similar diagnosis and/or treatment. Buddies provide friendly, compassionate advice as a way to lessen patients’ fears and uncertainties as they navigate the often difficult treatment process.

Now retired, Lonngren volunteers as a “Buddy on the Spot,” which means that once a week, he sits with patients and their loved ones in the waiting area of the Bodine Center for Radiation Therapy. He is available to answer questions about his own experiences and provide companionship to those who may feel especially anxious or upset. He also participates in “Coffee & Conversation with a Cancer Buddy” — an opportunity for him to meet with patients in the quiet and relaxed atmosphere of Jefferson’s Cancer Support and Welcome Center. “Pete is wonderful and a source of great support to our patients,” Rehm said.

Lonngren said that through multiple diagnoses, different kinds of treatments and his interaction with various doctors, nurses and departments, his respect for Jefferson has been unwavering. “Over the last decade, my medical needs have brought me to several departments at Jefferson, and that has only reinforced my admiration for the people who work there.”