Bellavia v. Cancer

How a mistaken diagnosis led to a fundraising movement

Published in 2019 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine

By David Levine on October 2, 2019


Leonard Bellavia thought he was going to die.

In 2016, at age 58, Bellavia’s yearly physical revealed a slightly elevated PSA level, a marker for prostate cancer. The doctor took a biopsy and ordered some imaging tests. A few days later, Bellavia got a voicemail telling him to come in to discuss next steps. “I thought, ‘That’s not encouraging,’” he says.

The imaging scan showed lesions on his bones, he was told, and the biopsy confirmed early-stage prostate cancer. A few weeks later, he had more testing done at Sloan Kettering in New York, one of the world’s leading cancer institutes. When he went to see the doctor, his X-rays were up on the wall. “I see my bones all lit up,” he says. “I said, ‘Is that me? That doesn’t look very good.’ The handwriting was on the wall—literally.”

He was told he had stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer, which had spread to his bones; he had a year to live. It was suggested he get his affairs in order, including winding down his practice.

“I sat on the sofa in my office, trying to come to terms with this,” he remembers. “I had to tell my wife and two daughters,” then ages 24 and 27. “I was a fighter, but the hardest part was telling my two kids.”

He met with the president of the local bar association for assistance in closing his Mineola-based law practice, the largest firm representing franchised auto dealers in the country; then he spent a month secretly boxing up his office. He applied to get into a clinical trial for an experimental treatment at Sloan Kettering but was rejected because his cancer was too far advanced. “My depression was profound and debilitating,” he says.

Then the salvation. One late afternoon, while cleaning out his office files, he took a call from the medical director of Sloan Kettering’s laboratory, who told Bellavia, “I have never had to make a call like this, but I am so excited to tell you we made a horrific mistake. We misread your biopsy.” Weeks earlier, Bellavia’s wife had asked the hospital to reconfirm his diagnosis. “So we did,” the doctor said. “I can assure you, you are not dying.” Bellavia did have low-grade prostate cancer, but the finding that it had spread throughout his body was false. His cancer was treatable after all.

“I recall saying ‘Oh, my God’ five times in a row,” Bellavia says.

He experienced the emotions you’d expect: joy, anger, survivor’s guilt. He thought about suing the hospital but took a different path. “I know Sloan Kettering does a lot of good. So I called their senior attorney and asked them to send a check for $100,000 to the Prostate Cancer Foundation,” he says. “I told them, ‘Either do the right thing, or I will sue you.’” They did the right thing.

Bellavia also realized his 30-plus-year law practice put him “in a position of influence in a high-profile and financially generous industry. Auto dealers donate to worthy causes. This could be leveraged into an opportunity to raise money for the fight against prostate cancer.”

There are 17,000 franchised auto dealerships in the U.S., and he asked the Prostate Cancer Foundation for permission to produce an annual car show: “Cruisin’ for a Cure.” Then he organized a fundraising group, Dealers vs. Cancer.

The first show, held in 2017 at Windham Mountain in upstate New York, featured about 300 classic and 50 new exotic cars. It raised about $25,000, he says, and topped that in 2018. They were so successful, the PCF invited him last November to a dinner, where he met a Nobel Prize-winning doctor who has made advances in immunotherapy, funded in part by his show’s earnings.

“When I told him my story, he said, ‘My prescription for you is to buy a Harley and ride up the California coast. You deserve to clear your head.’”

Bellavia is monitored for his cancer every six months—“I stayed at Sloan Kettering,” he says—and has an excellent prognosis. He also plans to create another fundraising group, Lawyers vs. Cancer, seeking contributions from attorneys nationwide on the day of the car show.

“Lawyers often underestimate the influence and reach they have,” he says.

For attorneys interested in helping out with Lawyers Vs. Cancer, you can contact Bellavia at [email protected].

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