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 The Cardillo family, from left, Lisa, Perla, Gemma, Dominic and Giulian are pictured in their Macomb Township home. Lisa had a heart attack last year, and Dominic was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014.

The Cardillo family, from left, Lisa, Perla, Gemma, Dominic and Giulian are pictured in their Macomb Township home. Lisa had a heart attack last year, and Dominic was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014.

Photo by Alex Szwarc

Brain tumor, heart attack survivors pay it forward this Christmas

Faced with adversity, local couple choose generosity

By: Alex Szwarc | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published December 18, 2018

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — In under three years, a Macomb Township couple’s world changed forever.

Dominic Cardillo, 38, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May 2014. Lisa Cardillo, 37, had a sudden heart attack in March 2017, going into cardiac arrest. At the time of Dominic’s diagnosis, the couple had three children under the age of 7.

“In a minute, our whole world changed in a way it will never be the same,” Lisa said. “It was hard, and I looked for support and found it through social media groups and Henry Ford Hospital support groups.”

It was through one of those support groups that, in 2014, the Cardillo family was on the receiving end of 25 Days of Christmas. For each day in December, the family would open one gift leading up to Christmas Day.

Since 2016, the Cardillos have returned the favor and gifted one family battling brain cancer 25 Days of Christmas.

This year’s arrangement was a little different.

Instead of surprising one family with 25 wrapped gifts, two families — one from Stanton, Iowa and one from Macomb Township — received 12 gifts. The Iowa family, part of the support group, has been affected by brain cancer, while the Michigan family was affected by a cardiac event.

“I wanted to pick somebody who had something heart-related, since that is near and dear to my heart now,” Lisa said. “The (husbands) in both families have passed away.”

Both of the families have three children. The children in Iowa are ages 6, 9 and 12; the Macomb Township family’s children are ages 1, 7 and 9.   

The gifts were delivered to both families on Dec. 13, the Macomb Township family’s in-person, and the Iowa family’s by air. The gift-opening began the following morning.

Prior to the deliveries, neither family knew it was coming.

Part of the reason why the Cardillos are paying it forward this Christmas is because after Dominic’s diagnosis, the family received support from a host of people.

“Our family and friends rallied around us,” Lisa said. “It was a whole team of people to help us get through it. You’re thrown into this situation that you didn’t ask for and you just have to learn as you go.”

Around 25 members of the community, including brain cancer survivors from Henry Ford Hospital, gathered at the Cardillo home for gift wrapping Dec. 8.

At least 50 people from across the country participated to make this year’s gifting a success, from donating gifts and money to wrapping presents.

“We’ve had people in the Facebook brain cancer support group and my heart condition group send donations from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Missouri,” Lisa said.

Altogether, the gifts cost around $1,000 per family and were completely funded through donations.

“For two people in their 30s, Lisa and Dominic have overcome a tremendous amount of adversity, all while raising three amazing kids,” Henry Ford Health System Public Relations Specialist Jeff Adkins said.

Dominic said that maintaining a positive outlook and living day-to-day has been the key over the past few years.

“It changes your perspective on how much time you have and what could happen, even when you’re young and healthy,” Lisa said. “Our friends, family and strangers have carried us through.”

When asked what their children think about the 25 Days of Christmas, Lisa said their youngest doesn’t remember when the family received the gifts in 2014.

“She keeps asking when we can get it again and I tell her hopefully we never need it again,” she said. “They like participating and love having everybody over.”

The Cardillos’ children, Giulian, Gemma and Perla are 12, 9 and 6, respectively.

Since the giving is split at 12 days per family, that leaves one extra day for it to truly be 25 Days of Christmas.

“Our kids wanted to gift somebody else and so we found another SCAD (spontaneous coronary artery dissection) patient who we felt needed a little something special, so we made her our 25th gift. It makes me feel good they are able to think outside of themselves,” Lisa said.

On Dec. 1, the Cardillos organized a fundraiser at Jefferson Street Pub in Harrison Township, which is owned by Dominic’s parents. The charity auction raised more than $15,000, all of which is going to Henry Ford’s Hermelin Brain Tumor Center and Turning Point. The proceeds will be split between the organizations.

Planning for the 25 Days of Christmas began in September.

In October, Lisa recruited a “scout elf” from each of the families who knows them well and they helped her with the kids’ names and ages.

“People sign up for shopping and then drop off gifts,” she said. “It all culminates with the wrapping party.”

The first day of gifts was a money tree filled with cash. Each child, as well as the family dog, has their own day of gifts.

“They have family days with things they can use to make memories together. We save the grand finale gift for day 25 on Christmas,” Lisa said.

To summarize the Cardillos’ health history, Dominic had a craniotomy — the surgical removal of part of the bone from the skull to expose the brain – and went through chemotherapy and radiation. After Lisa’s heart attack, she was in a coma for five days.

The cause of her heart attack was a tear in the lining of an artery that supplies the heart, known as SCAD.

Dominic had a grand mal seizure in his sleep and within an hour of being at the hospital, learned he had a brain tumor. A grand mal seizure causes a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. The tumor was removed a month later at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

He currently has MRI scans every six months. So far, the results have been stable.

Dominic works for Stabilus, an automotive supplier, as a mechanical engineer. Lisa, a former preschool teacher, is home full-time with her children, homeschooling them.