The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

November 21, 2012

‘Against all odds’: Family thankful despite father’s deadly illness

Arlene Johns

— It’s the little things they are thankful for the most.

A dinner shared with family, a quiet country drive, snuggling together on the couch, the laughter of their children, a smile ...

As Ivana and Ignazio Panebianco struggle against the brain tumors that have now impacted his right side and speech, the Westmont couple continue to count their many blessings.

“I am thankful for his smile every day when I wake up,” the former Ivana Salvatore said. “It’s the first thing I see. Maybe someday he won’t be able to smile.”

Ignazio Panebianco, 45, was diagnosed with a brain tumor more than 10 years ago.

Since then, he has had several surgeries and recently finished radiation treatment. He is currently receiving chemotherapy.

“Medically, this is our last resort,” his wife said.

Yet the owner of Numero Uno, an Italian-themed restaurant in the Westwood Plaza, hasn’t given up, insisting on physical therapy.

“They told him it may not help him, but he said ‘It won’t hurt me,’ ” his wife said.

So, despite the difficulties, he goes to therapy and continues to go to work – refusing to use a cane.

“He’s still fighting. He’s still positive,” his wife said.

“We concentrate on the things that we can do. He may not be able to talk or make that perfectly round pizza anymore, but he’s still there, still smiling. We’re still believing in those things that have gotten us through – a wonderful medical team and our faith in God.

“We’re hoping that we beat the odds once again.”

Ivana Panebianco operates Salvatore’s Hairstyling, a business that was established by her father after the family immigrated to Johnstown from Italy.

She is grateful to supportive staff at both the salon and the restaurant.

The workers at the restaurant shaved their heads in solidarity when their boss lost his hair the first time.

“We think of them as our family,” Ivana Panebianco said.

The couple plan to sell the restaurant to someone who will “continue it as is.” Panebianco said her husband will continue to be involved, even after the sale. “He will be there until he can’t be there anymore.”

She still marvels at how the two were brought together. He was born and raised in Italy, and the two met when the Salvatores were visiting the country.

“Against all odds,” Ivana Panebianco said. “Yet here we are.”

After their marriage, they eventually moved back to Johnstown, where they have found their home and many true friends.

Everywhere they go, they are greeted by people who care – many of whom they don’t even know.

“We are so humbled,” Ivana Panebianco said. “Here we are – a hairdresser and a cook.”

A group of friends has planned a surprise “Celebrate Life!!!” fundraiser to raise money to be set aside for the four Panebianco children’s education. The event will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Art Works.

Local businessman Mark Pasquerilla came up with the idea for the fundraiser after wondering what could be done to help the family.

“Johnstown has truly opened up its arms to us and they never let us go,” Ivana Panebianco said.

The event is aptly named as a celebration of life, which is exactly what the couple does every day.

“We appreciate every moment. Every moment. We have lived more in the past 10 years than most people do in a lifetime,” Ivana Panebianco said. “God has given us the gift of time. Time that we thought we didn’t have.”

Although some may not understand, the couple consider the disease to be a blessing in disguise. “We’ve always thought that this has been our gift. Without it we wouldn’t have realized how important every single moment is in life.

“Honestly we are at peace. We are so grateful,” Ivana Panebianco said. “It gave us the opportunity to teach our children. In the suffering there is so much good.”

Earlier this week, the couple heard the word “stable” following an MRI. It’s not necessarily an improvement, but they’ll take it.

“I almost knocked him over hugging him,” Ivana Panebianco said with a laugh. “This is good. This is very good.”

They believe in the power of prayer. “Maybe God will give us the gift of some more time.”

But whatever the future holds, Panebianco said her husband is at peace.

“He has said to me: ‘I am not afraid.’ His big worry is us – our family, the kids.”

One thing is for sure, Ignazio will never be forgotten.

“To me he will always live on. In each of his children there is a part of him.

“I think I will feel him with me forever.”