WOONSOCKET – March 23, 2020, is not a date Paul Adam easily forgets. It’s the day his twin brother, Peter, a longtime chief of the Manville Fire Department, was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 57.
“He called and told me on a Friday. I said sorry to hear that, but there’s always hope,” Paul recalled during an interview at his Woonsocket home last week.
The following Wednesday, Paul drove his brother to Rhode Island Hospital to begin treatment. Outside, a pandemic was raging across the state, and Paul could only watch as his brother walked into the hospital without his family at his side.
“It was the hardest day of my life because it was the pandemic. All I could do is drive him up to the door and let him out,” he said.
“He was going into the battle of his life,” he added.
Paul, who works in the provider enrollment department for CVS MinuteClinic, was already well versed in the challenges a cancer patient faces. For the past three years, he has volunteered as a legislative ambassador for the ACS Cancer Action Network, the lobbying arm of the American Cancer Society. It was a role he took on after watching his sister, Denise Berard, defeat breast cancer twice and after working with his niece to arrange Relay for Life events at Lincoln High School.
Peter would undergo two clinical trials in Rhode Island and one in Boston over the next seven months. Berard helped coach him through radiation therapy as he isolated to protect his weakened immune system. A younger brother, Roger, proved a bone marrow match, but doctors could only attempt a transplant if Peter went into remission. As the months went by, it became clear that wasn’t going to be the case.
Peter died on Oct. 20, 2020. His funeral was held at St. James Church and featured a fireman’s parade to St. James Cemetery.
In the weeks that followed, tributes began popping up around Lincoln as the community showed its support. Peter had started his career as a volunteer firefighter with the Manville Fire Department in 1985, taking a position with the Albion Fire Department before returning to Manville as chief in 2006. Paul said his brother’s passion for the department was second only to his love for his wife, Margaret.
“It was crazy. It was beautiful to see, to be honest with you,” he said about the outpouring of support.
Since then, Paul has shared his brother’s story with loved ones and strangers as he continues to lobby for more funding and support for cancer research. Last Friday, Nov. 12, he was a featured speaker at the ACS CAN Cancer Research Breakfast, an annual event that brings advocates together with lawmakers from all levels of government. Paul said organizers had considered him as a speaker at last year’s event but weren’t sure he could hold it together so soon after his brother’s death.
Following his presentation, he said, a woman approached him with tears in her eyes.
“She grabbed my hands and she said, ‘Paul, I was one of your brother’s nurses at Rhode Island Hospital. That was beautiful what you said about your brother,’” he said.
While the community has made strides against cancer over the past several years, Paul told The Breeze the progress isn’t enough. According to statistics compiled by the American Cancer Society, 210 individuals in Rhode Island are projected to be diagnosed with leukemia in 2021, and 120 are expected to die of the disease. Paul said he has hope that years from now, data from the clinical trials his brother participated in will be used to save others with leukemia.
Members of ACS CAN celebrate their successes, including the passage of a bill by the General Assembly this past spring that prevents insurance companies from charging copays for colon cancer screenings. At the same time, Paul said, they know there is more work to be done. He tries to use events such as Relay for Life to get more people involved in the work.
“My hope is that the people there are going to come up and say, ‘How can I do advocacy work here?’” he said.
He sees his advocacy work as a way to remember his brother, who loved family dinners and adored his two grandchildren more than anything in the world, according to Paul. As of last March, he’s not the only one to honor Peter’s memory through the work. His sister, Berard, now also serves as a legislative ambassador for ACS CAN, fighting to make sure stories like Peter’s are told.
“It’s to give me voice, and it also helps me remember Peter in a good way,” Paul said.