On most weekends pre-pandemic, Gina Barilone could be found on a concert stage belting out hits from artists like Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. She even performed some original tunes with her entertainment business, Mzz B Productions, LLC, which provides live bands, photo booths, DJ/KJ and live sound production for private and corporate clients in Maryland, D.C., Virginia and other areas.
When COVID-19 shut the world down in 2020, Barilone was just like everyone else – at home and with minimal physical contact with the world. She missed spending her days working as an administrative coordinator for the Johns Hopkins Institution, as well as many evenings basking in the glow of love with her children and closest friends.
But about three months into lockdown, the golden-voiced Baltimore resident felt some pain in her stomach. As it continued, she concluded that the pain must be a gynecological issue, so she called her doctor.
“Several years ago, I had some fibroids removed, and doctors determined that it was a fibroid; however, they wanted to perform other tests and MRIs to be sure,” Barilone recalled. “In July, the pain had increased in my stomach and progressed to my lower back. I knew that it could not be fibroids causing this pain, so I thought maybe I pulled a back muscle.
“Suddenly, my symptoms worsened, with intensified stomach aches, severe backaches, diarrhea, jaundice, loss of appetite and rapid weight loss. I was finally scheduled for an X-ray and then finally a GI appointment in August.”
In September, Barilone underwent an intense routine of bloodwork, testing, prescription medication and CT scans.
“After consulting with my nurse practitioner, Jennifer, I knew I had to take this seriously,” she said. “During an ultrasound, doctors noticed a mass at the head of my pancreas. I was terrified. I didn’t know how to be brave. I truly thought I was going to die. Jennifer did her best to comfort me and give me hope. Her optimism and positive spirit allowed me to breathe.
“Tests revealed my pancreatic duct was blocked, so I immediately underwent a procedure to have a stent placed to drain bile and to confirm the diagnosis: Stage II pancreatic cancer. My first oncologist believed I was too old to handle the strongest chemotherapy treatment, and that my chances for long-term survival were minimal. I knew I deserved better.”
Barilone’s weight dropped from 157 to 134 pounds, but today she is at a steady 119, and her antigen 19-9 levels – a marker for pancreatic cancer – are well.
“Although I’ve developed neuropathy in my legs, feet and knees, and some days severe fatigue, I’m still able to manage long walks,” said Barilone, who recently completed a 5K run/walk and has returned to work.
She’s also returned to the recording studio at Stages Music Arts, working with singer-songwriter Richard Crafton.
“Starting this June, I’m laying the backing vocals on a second album with Cam Aliff, who is known as Tex Moonlight,” Barilone exclaimed.
But her fight is far from over. According to the National Cancer Institute, only 8.2% of pancreatic cancer patients survive for five years.
“I would like to – with God’s grace – push that envelope,” Barilone said.
The pancreas is deep inside the body, and standard physical exams cannot detect early tumors. People usually have no symptoms until the cancer has already spread to other organs. A diagnosis like that can drain patients of most resources, so Barilone’s family has started a GoFundMe campaign to help offset some of her rising medical costs.
The brave hit-maker also performed during the Mzz Bs Beatz and Eatz Benefit show at Stages Music Arts in Cockeysville, Md., on June 5, 2021.
“The benefit was developed to unite family, friends and colleagues in one place at one time, to unite and celebrate hope and the endurance of life, through love, support, eats and music,” Barilone said. “I want to give back as well as I am receiving.”
She cautions women to not ignore any signs their bodies might be signaling.
“Take time out with your primary care physician and run tests,” Barilone noted. “If they don’t work hard for you to find out what’s wrong with your body, then seek help from others. Our lives are too beautiful and precious. No health, no wealth.”
To contribute to Barilone’s GoFundMe, visit GoFund.Me/81acc4e2.