Victor Nuciforo was in the thick of a busy spring mowing season in 2021 when the landscaping entrepreneur from East Hanover, New Jersey, noticed a bump on his left ring finger. He passed it off as a bug bite. His seven-day work schedule—which includes running a coffee shop—led him to ignore the growth for months, a decision he came to regret when he learned it was a type of cancer that could become life-threatening.
But despite the delay in treatment, doctors at Hackensack University Medical Center were able to keep Victor’s hand fully functional—and maximize the father of three’s odds of a full recovery—by performing an innovative surgery that amputated the diseased finger and pulled the remaining digits closer together.
“When I found out it was cancer, I wondered: Did I choose my work over my health? Would my children be without a father? It really blindsided me, and I got scared,” says Victor, 50.
Maintaining Function and Form
Through their research, Victor and his wife, Judi, found Valdis Lelkes, M.D., an orthopedic oncologist, which is an orthopedic surgeon with special training to treat patients for noncancerous and cancerous lesions that grow in the soft tissues or bones of the trunk, arms or legs. Dr. Lelkes explained that amputating the finger was the safest course. Prior surgery elsewhere had removed just the bump—which tests had identified as squamous cell carcinoma—but it was growing back, Dr. Lelkes says.
The previous surgery by another surgeon didn’t completely remove the tumor, limiting Dr. Lelkes’ options to save Victor’s finger while eradicating the cancer. “Despite me telling Victor the best option was to cut off his finger—which, as a landscaper, was particularly shocking since his hands are his greatest tools—he wanted to get the best treatment and overcome this,” Dr. Lelkes says. “But I told him I could make his hand normal in function and rather normal in appearance.”
In July 2021, Dr. Lelkes removed Victor’s ring finger and bone tissue higher up in the hand, pulling his middle and pinky fingers together and minimizing the gap that would otherwise result. Tissue samples were taken to confirm no tumor cells remained, and Victor was able to go home the following day.
Several weeks of post-operative occupational hand therapy helped Victor recover and learn to use his newly configured left hand. He’s now able to “do pretty much everything” he did with his hand at work and home before the surgery.
Victor loves to drive his daughters around in his classic 1985 Mustang. “I’m definitely not putting work in front of my family or health ever again,” he says. “This experience definitely changed my perspective. My priorities are no longer work first and health second.”
He will be monitored for many years to come by specialists at Hackensack, including Dr. Lelkes and a medical oncologist who will check for cancer recurrence.
“We identified that this was a problem that needed a very specific type of treatment,” Dr. Lelkes says. “By knowing the extent of his disease, we could come up with the best and most appropriate plan.”
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