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Couple knows cancer up close and personal

| Friday, June 23, 2006

MONESSEN -- It's easy to pick out Joseph and Joann Vizza's house in Monessen as it boasts a large red, white and blue sign promoting their favorite cause.

The Vizzas are long-time supporters of the American Cancer Society's "Relay for Life" in the Mon Valley. The annual event at City Park will begin at noon Saturday and run through 9:30 a.m. Sun- day.

Like many of the participants in the Relay for Life, the Vizzas take their participation in the event very seriously as they know all too well about cancer.

Joseph Vizza was diagnosed with prostate cancer five years ago and his sister, Rosalie Nicksich, is a two-time cancer survivor who now coordinates the Monessen event.

"My mother had cancer, my brother had cancer, my mom's sister had cancer and so did many of my other relatives," said Joseph Vizza, a life-long Monessen resident and retired electrician of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel. "Cancer has always been part of our lives."

His wife was also dealt a devastating blow two years ago when she was diagnosed with being in the advanced stages of breast cancer.

She admits that she didn't go to her physician for regular visits as family obligations often took precedence, especially during her husband's heart bypass surgery a few years ago.

"There is always an excuse not to go to the doctor," Joann Vizza said. "This is why they constantly tell you early detection is the key."

She underwent a double mastectomy and underwent extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments. After her surgery, her doctor informed her they were unable to remove all of cancer, and to continue chemotherapy.

Today, she is crossing her fingers that her stabilized health will stay that way.

Her husband has been cancer-free since undergoing prostate removal surgery.

Their personal battles with cancer and those of their loved ones sparked them to get involved with the Mon Valley Relay for Life when it came to Monessen seven years ago.

Led by team captain Nicksich and co-captain Mary Jo Smith, the Vizzas are members of the relay's "Testa Doura" team which means "hard head" in Italian.

"We're a bunch of hard heads," Vizza said with a laugh.

Relay for Life teams rally to fund-raise for the American Cancer Society, with the goal of being the top fund-raiser. Nicksich proudly noted that her brother and sister-in-law donated $500 this year for the relay.

The Vizzas are hoping others will see the importance in the relay and help, too.

"Everyday they come up with something new to help fight cancer," Joann Vizza said.

Among the many activities at the Relay for Life will be the emotional luminary service at 9 p.m. Saturday. Participants light a luminary in honor of a loved one who has died from cancer.

"It's such a beautiful sight - it gives me the chills," she said. "And every year the gap between the luminaries gets a little closer as more keep getting added."

Opening ceremonies for the Relay for Life will begin at 9 a.m. at the City Park walking track. Games will take place all day, along with entertainment. A survivors' lap will be held at 6 p.m. A sunrise service will be at 6 a.m. Sunday, followed by closing ceremonies at 9 a.m.

The couple says they now take one day at a time and are looking forward to their 50th wedding anniversary on Oct. 20.

They have two daughters, Teresa Riskey, of South Park, and Jennifer Vizza, of the South Side.

They all participate each year in the Susan G. Komen walk for breast cancer held each year in Pittsburgh.

The Vizzas are grateful to all of the friends and relatives who have helped them during their battles with cancer and are always quick to remind people of the importance of early detection.

"Everyone, in someway, has been affected by cancer," Joseph Vizza said. "We all have to do what we can to help beat it."

(To make a donation to the American Cancer Society, call 888-227-5445.)

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