2023 Person of the Year: Rocco Pisani

 2023 Person of the Year: Rocco Pisani

By Katie McFadden

Time Magazine has their person of the year. Since 2021, The Rockaway Times has ours. In a community where so many people go above and beyond to make the world around them a little better, the choice was not easy. But we decided to go with someone who despite their own personal battle, put himself out there to try to make things better for others. Over the past year, Rocco Pisani has proven to be beyond deserving of the title as The Rockaway Times’ 2023 Person of the Year.

On Tuesday, December 26, Rocco Pisani got to ride a snowboard without having to worry so much about falling down. It was the first time in years he rode a snowboard without a chemo port on his chest. It was the first of many firsts this year for 14-year-old Pisani. But Pisani hasn’t accepted falling down as an option throughout his young life and especially throughout his three and a half-year-long battle with leukemia. After all, “Never give up,” is his longtime motto, and it was that attitude that helped him come out on top and officially be able to say, “I beat cancer,” earlier this year. And it wasn’t just his ability to beat leukemia that was courageous, but his effort to step up and go above and beyond for others going through similar battles in the hopes that maybe their battle won’t be as tough.

In 2020 at 10 years old, Pisani received the news that no kid deserves. He had cancer. And on May 15, 2020, he began his battle against it with his first chemo treatment. He went on to endure 109 chemo infusions, 20 spinal taps, 60 leg shots, 14 blood transfusions, seven platelet transfusions, 11 visits to the ER, and two surgeries, before on August 23, 2023, he had his very last chemo treatment at his hospital, Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center. After, Pisani walked out of the hospital to his friends there, ready to greet him and cheer him on, followed by his entire community of Broad Channel cheering him on as he arrived home to celebrate the good news and ring a bell. It was the first time Pisani cried throughout his battle. On September 9, he took his final chemo pill. A month later, on October 9, he finally had his chemo port removed. The second time Pisani cried was when he returned to Cohen’s to ring the bell there on November 14, officially giving him the ability to say, “I beat cancer.”

Spending nearly four years of your childhood battling cancer is a feat in itself. But it is what Pisani did beyond that, while going through that battle, that was even more inspiring. After seeing firsthand what children endure to beat leukemia, Pisani wanted to do what he could to try to make things a little easier for those facing similar battles. So, he and his family embarked on efforts to give back. They began joining in fundraising efforts for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), a nonprofit that dedicates much of its services to not only helping leukemia patients and their families get through the battle, but toward research to find ways to make treatments better and to one day, hopefully find a cure. After undergoing treatments that were made for adults, the Pisanis decided to support LLS to find ways to make treatments that are more appropriate for children.

“I never knew how bad things were until I went through it and once I did, I thought of all the hospital rooms that were full of kids sick and in pain, especially the little babies crying getting needles,” Rocco Pisani said. ”I wanted to find a way to help them because I knew I could do it but I wanted to make sure all of them could do it by trying to make their lives easier.”

One way he decided to help was to donate pill boxes. When Rocco received an army of medications early on in his treatment, he realized organized pill boxes that could separate medications for certain days and times, would make things a little easier. “It took a lot of stress off my parents because I knew exactly what time to do it and how much to take and it made it easier,” Rocco Pisani said. So, the Pisanis decided to share the idea with others. They made personalized pill boxes with Rocco’s motto, “never give up,” on them and would donate them to other kids in the hospital. “We did it four times, 100 pill boxes a time,” he said.

Another way was through fundraising. They initially supported Julia O’Sullivan as she ran for LLS’ Student of the Year on Team Sister Strong in honor of her sister, Siobhan, who also battled leukemia, sometimes with Pisani receiving treatments in the bed beside her. O’Sullivan’s campaign was a success, raising more than $125K for LLS, with Rocco raising $50K of that, making him Team Member of the Year. This year, that effort continued with fellow Scholars’ Academy classmate Angelina LoBianco stepping up to run for Student of the Year on Team Fight With Your Smile. With his fundraising success in 2022, Pisani had to excuse himself from being part of the fundraising team. After all, he had a bigger role.

Pisani was named the Honored Hero of the LLS Student Visionary of the Year campaign. That meant he had to serve as motivator for all teams to do their best during the competition by sending motivational videos of him doing things like shooting hoops in between chemo treatments, in the hopes that the teams would be inspired to go above and beyond. It was something Pisani was used to doing, as throughout his cancer battle, he would film regular videos on Instagram documenting the progress with his cancer treatments, and with his workouts, as he never stopped trying to better himself in every way.

While Rocco himself couldn’t fundraise, the Pisani family helped LoBianco behind the scenes, helping her put on a big fundraising event among other efforts. LoBianco ultimately placed second but was able to raise $92,000 for LLS this year. At the Student Visionary of the Year Gala in March, as Honored Hero, Rocco was given the big job of making a speech in front of hundreds of attendees, to share his story and serve up some inspiration. It was the first of many big speeches this year. He also went on to speak at LLS’ Rock the Night event featuring bands and at this year’s lighting of The Little North Pole, where Pisani was given the honor of pushing the magic button to light up the home, as the Mure family decided to donate some proceeds from this year’s lighting to Rocco’s fundraising efforts. He also recently spoke at a special sold-out Survivors Gala that the Pisani and O’Sullivan families held at Russo’s in the Bay, to honor the doctors and nurses who cared for them, celebrate fellow survivors and inspire others to keep going, while raising more money for childhood cancer awareness.

While speaking in front of hundreds to thousands of people can be intimidating for anyone, Pisani has taken it in stride, as he hopes his words can help others.

“I feel like I was chosen for a reason, and I feel that now that I’ve gone through it and I’m finished, I’m able to tell people that they can do it too. I feel grateful that I’m finished and able to tell people what it’s like to be done and I feel good trying to talk to help other people,” Pisani said. “The first time at the Gala, I was a little nervous but since I’m young, I feel like I have more leniency from people, so if I mess up, at least it’s all for a good cause and there’s not too much pressure. As long as I’m helping people, it doesn’t matter if I mess up. I just do my best.”

While Pisani has been hard at work fundraising and using his voice to raise awareness for childhood blood cancers, he’s also been rewarded with some pretty cool experiences this year. In July, he was able to walk the field at Citi Field along with members of the Wheelchair Sports Federation. It was one of many unique sports experiences Rocco has had throughout his treatments. In 2021, he was asked to design a childhood cancer patch for the NY Rangers, that they wore for the whole month. He also got to meet Rangers star Adam Fox through a Zoom call. He also got to speak to Cookie Carrasco of the NY Mets, who shared his own story of battling leukemia. He even received a NY Yankees jersey, signed by the whole team. While at Citi Field, player Pete Alonso gave him a signed ball, and such acts of support from some of the best in sports never stopped. “I really felt like I had so much support and it helped me knowing that I had all these people backing me up and I felt like I wasn’t alone. Of course, my family and friends were always with me, but it was cool having these people that I never thought I’d see in my life, telling me that they’re on my side. It felt good,” Pisani said.

And one of the ultimate experiences happened this November when Rocco was invited to Madison Square Garden by the NY Rangers to bring awareness to childhood cancer. He got to ring a bell in front of the whole Garden. “The first bell I rang was realty emotional but the one at the Rangers game was important because it was to raise awareness for childhood cancer so I got to show people what it looks like to be on the other side of that and give hope to people that they can get through it. It felt good to inspire other people,” he said.

In addition to beating cancer, Pisani has had some other big personal accomplishments this year. He started high school at Xaverian High School on a full-ride scholarship, based on his academics and his skills on the drums. “I tried my hardest at school and when I heard about the music scholarship, I said, let me try to do this,” he said. Xaverian was his dream school. “I feel all my hard work paid off,” he said. The former Scholars’ Academy student continues to impress at Xaverian with a 100 average, and he’s already been selected for some advanced drumming assignments. “Since I’m on an advanced scholarship, the music teacher put me in a lot of different bands, so I go to a lot of performances, including homecoming, the Chris Hoban Run, the Ragamuffin Parade, and a 9/11 memorial concert in front of senators,” Pisani said.

Perhaps most importantly, this year, Rocco has been able to return to simply being a kid. One of the first things he did after getting his port removed was wrestle with his friends. He can enjoy time in the pool again and even started regular ice bath challenges to continue to build himself up physically and mentally. He’s also getting back into the sports he loves, with hopes of rejoining teams next year. And the Pisani family is looking forward to planning family vacations where they don’t have to worry about whether or not a children’s hospital is nearby. “They’re such small things. You don’t realize that he just wants to be a kid. Now we just learn to appreciate these small things that before you might’ve taken for granted,” his mom, Jamie Pisani said. “It really puts things into perspective.”

Throughout his treatments, Rocco has been fortunate to have the support of a loving family and a tightknit community. His father, Rob Pisani, often utilizes his deli, Bagel & Barista Station, to support Rocco in his fundraising endeavors. His sister, Charlie, has never complained about plans sometimes being disrupted by Rocco’s treatments. Instead, she rallied her dance team to give a special performance just for Rocco at their recent Survivors Gala event in November. And Jamie Pisani has taken her support to Capitol Hill, speaking to senators and congress members at the LLS Dare to Dream Summit in October, to try to gain support for legislation that will help groups like LLS be successful in their research efforts.

Rocco’s story alone has served as a source of support by itself. “We’ve gotten endless emails from people saying, ‘you helped me with this and that.’ One girl said she follows him on Instagram and that she was a recovering addict, and she was almost ready to take pills again until she saw a video he made and saw what he was going through, and she wrote him a letter saying that because of him, she didn’t relapse,” Rob Pisani said. “Then another time I was in Rocco’s pizzeria and a guy in a mask asked, ‘Is that Rocco?’ and I said, ‘yes, it’s my son’ and the guy said to me that during the holidays, he lost his wife and he was on the verge of ending it all but his sister had sent him Rocco’s videos and he said, ‘after seeing the stuff your son is going through, it never crossed my mind again to end things.’”

For anyone going through a tough time, Rocco has a little advice. “Always look on the bright side. God chose you,” Rocco Pisani said. “You were chosen to go through whatever you’re dealing with for a reason and God gives his toughest battles to his strongest warriors. He knows you can make it through as long as you look on the bright side, keep going and never give up.”

While Rocco’s leaving his personal battle with cancer behind in 2023, his work won’t end anytime soon. He has big plans for 2024. In January, he himself will be running for LLS’ Student Visionary of the Year along with Siobhan O’Sullivan, so their fundraising campaign will be starting soon. “Next year, I’m gonna try to win the LLS campaign and raise as much money as possible to help kids like me,” Pisani said. “I’ll keep doing whatever I can.”

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