Working Together for You
We’re proud to serve as patient advocates at The Mesothelioma Center and are committed to being a shoulder to lean on for survivors, caregivers and their loved ones. We’ve seen the challenges of cancer firsthand.
We’re all unique people who bring our diverse personal and professional backgrounds to our work, helping us connect with those coping with a mesothelioma diagnosis. We have a doctor, military veteran, family members of cancer survivors and a member of the American Thoracic Society among us. We’re also parents, pickleball enthusiasts and marathon runners. We want the survivors and families we work with to know that there are options available for them and we’re here for them. Every person we speak with receives individualized guidance, emotional support and the best possible resources to help improve quality of life.
We work tirelessly to ensure that no one goes through their cancer journey in the dark. We’re involved in outreach efforts, webinars, support groups and events like Miles for Meso, which is an annual run and walk to raise awareness and funds for mesothelioma research. Working as a cohesive team, we know each other’s strengths and passions. We’re unified with the same goal to help patients.
Certified oncology patient navigator and patient advocate Vanessa Blanco has been offering compassion and hope for mesothelioma patients and their families since 2010. Her passion for helping cancer patients is personal. Vanessa has lost several members of her family to different forms of cancer and has empathy for every person who has had their lives turned upside down by the disease.
Vanessa holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees in health service administration from the University of Central Florida. Her expertise supplies much needed hope for patients, providing better ways to navigate every step of their cancer journey including treatment, insurance coverage and transportation. Helping patients apply for financial aid and treatment grants allows them to focus more on fighting the disease and getting better instead of worrying about their pocketbooks. Vanessa also acts as an important connection for anyone in need of a caregiver or emotional support.
Inspired by Family
“I lost family to different cancers and lost my youngest sister at the age of 21 to asthma in 2009. Shortly after my sister’s passing, I became involved with the American Lung Association and worked closely with some of their advocates. My involvement with the ALA’s advocacy efforts to increase awareness of asthma is what sparked my interest in taking on a patient advocate role. By 2010 I was fortunate and was offered an opportunity to help mesothelioma and lung cancer patients at The Mesothelioma Center.”
Personal Experiences Used for Motivation
“I’ve always had a passion and interest in healthcare. I studied health service administration and by my master’s degree several classes discussed the career path into oncology as a patient advocate. I unfortunately have had several cancer diagnoses in my family and knew how helpful it would have been if my family had someone to help us find diagnosis and treatment information along with resources. As emotional as it is for me sometimes to hear stories and struggles very similar to what my family went through, I’m motivated daily to do my best to help others so that they get the help and resources they need during one of the most difficult times in their lives.”
Cherishing Family and Friends
“My friends and family are my recharge. I have two daughters, 16 and 2 and an amazingly supportive husband. My 16 year old dances competitively and performs on her high school color guard team. If we’re not busy at dance or color guard performances and/or competitions, we’re with family and friends. I’m from a big family and have friends that have become family. I moved to Orlando from NYC my senior year in high school and have remained close friends with the people I met that year. Living close to high school friends means a lot of fun gatherings with the kids around Orlando. I do love to run and prior to having my 2nd child ran daily while training for local 5k & 10ks. My goal is to get back to running this year.”
Beacon of Hope
“Providing hope is my favorite part of being a PA. We often get families who think the diagnosis is the end and for the majority, it’s not. It’s the beginning of a difficult journey. I love informing families of the medical advancements made for the treatment of mesothelioma, the hopes in new clinical trials and the financial and emotional support services that are available to them. I can hear the switch from hopelessness to hopefulness. There are a lot of helpful resources available and I want to make sure every person mesothelioma affects knows of these resources. I wish this was the same for all cancers.”
Financial advocate and VA-accredited claims agent Danielle DiPietro works to make sure every mesothelioma patient and their families are able to deal with any unexpected financial hardship during their cancer journey. Her expertise ensures that everyone she assists has options for treatment. She also makes sure that every patient is able to utilize all aspects of their health insurance benefits.
Danielle began her patient advocacy journey in 2012 soon after graduating from the University of Central Florida. She became a VA-accredited claims agent in August 2016. Danielle also visits Veterans Service Officers across the U.S. through The Mesothelioma Center’s Veterans Outreach Program. The goal is to raise awareness about both the financial and medical burdens mesothelioma has on our nation’s veterans.
Dealing with cancer is something Danielle has been forced to endure in her personal life since 2014. It was then that her father-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and later passed away that same year after going through chemotherapy and having surgery. Danielle’s father was then diagnosed with colon cancer in 2019.
After having surgery, the cancer came back in 2022. Her father had another surgery and then chemotherapy before getting a clean bill of health in April 2023. Danielle saw the toll that chemotherapy can take on a person firsthand. She says being a patient advocate for mesothelioma patients made it easy for her to understand her dad’s situation and know what steps were needed to make sure he received the very best care.
Inspired to Help Others
“I have dealt with cancer in my own family on more than one occasion, feeling lost and not having anywhere to turn made an already difficult situation worse. Understanding what it is like to be a caregiver has inspired me to want to help others. I have learned how to control the emotional side and be proactive to get the help they need. This experience is one I try to share with all the families I help.”
Passionate About Keeping Active
“Living an active lifestyle of running and cycling helps clear my head and recharge. I typically do physical activity first thing in the morning to support a healthy lifestyle and mental state. My family and friends that are family is what I live for. I enjoy traveling and having Sunday dinners with anyone that will join. I have two young daughters that keep me on my toes and a husband that supports everything I want to do, including things to better myself as an advocate for patients and families I help.”
“I usually connect with patients and their families in the most emotional part of this journey when they are first diagnosed. Initially I’m here to explain everything they have been told, lay out options for doctors and financial help and get them started on next steps. Long term I become a support resource, someone the patient or their family members can turn to even just to talk about where they are within the journey. There are some families I have lifelong relationships with who I share my family with as well.”
Our Unique Team
“Our team has been working together for more than a decade. We all bring different experiences personally and professionally, which allow us to provide anything and everything to our patients. We have dedicated medical personnel that can reexplain anything a physician has told a patient. Having our medical outreach team assures us of all the top specialists and centers of excellence to treat mesothelioma. The relationships they have built allow us to get our patients’ appointments very quickly. Having a veteran on our team has been invaluable to helping veterans and VSOs understand all the help that is available to them. The different skills we all bring allow us to help patients and their families through every step of this difficult journey.”
To better serve our patients and provide the high-quality personal service that only The Mesothelioma Center can, we also have medical outreach liaisons on our team. Missy Miller is our medical outreach director. Missy has been helping patients and their families get in touch with some of the best doctors across the country since 2010. Through her work, Missy is able to empower patients and their families with important information reassuring them they are getting the very best care available. She also plays a major role in our Community Outreach program which makes sure patients are aware of every resource to help improve every patient's quality of life.
One of Missy’s many strengths is building relationships with some of the most renowned advocates, doctors and social workers in the nation. Through her ability to make connections, every patient can rest assured that much of the hard work has already been done for them. Patients worried about their funds can rest easy knowing that Missy is able to help them receive travel grants or lodging discounts for anyone who needs to travel for treatment. Missy graduated from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Her studies also got her ready for a career serving the emotional and mental needs of families dealing with a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Education is Key
“I wanted to give patients the opportunity to have a better prognosis from this horrific life shattering illness, educating them on what medical facilities and doctors specialize in this rare cancer. Having the right team of doctors is crucial to the longevity of these patients.”
Making the Journey for Patients a Little Easier
“I made it my mission to become an expert on medical facilities, specialists, and clinical trials that are available to these patients. Through all the connections I have made over the last 13 years, I have been able to streamline the appointment process in an effort to help eliminate the barrier to care that patients often struggle to overcome.”
Family, Friends and Fun
“I love spending time with my family. I have a husband, two sons and a stepdaughter. A lot of my free time is spent attending various events/activities for the kids. I love to play pickleball. I try to play as often as I can. It offers me time with my friends while relieving stress through physical exercise.”
Accomplishments to be Proud of
“Growing the medical outreach program has been very rewarding. It has allowed me to find resources for patients in underserved communities to allow them to get the best possible treatment. Personally I’m very proud of the beautiful, blended family that I have. My family means the world to me and I cherish them deeply. I also have amazing friends that have become my family. I try to surround myself with positive energy filled with love and light.”
“I enjoy traveling across the U.S., visiting medical facilities to see all the cutting edge medical treatments and advancements that have been made to help find a cure for this cancer. Being able to share my knowledge with patients and their loved ones is very rewarding for me. If I have the opportunity to make a difference in their lives and provide even a glimmer of hope, I strive to achieve that.”
Many veterans and their family members in need of guidance following a mesothelioma diagnosis have worked with Aaron Munz. He’s our director of the Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center. Aaron is also a VA-accredited claims agent and a former U.S. Army Captain. As a veteran himself, he has a heart for the men and women who’ve served our country and are now fighting mesothelioma. After serving nine years in the Army and leading more than 300 combat operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Aaron’s passion is now helping veterans during every step of their cancer journey.
Aaron’s experience as a VA-accredited claims agent means every veteran gets personal attention to ensure their VA disability claim is filed properly. Potentially confusing paperwork is something he gives every veteran a helping hand with personally. Any veteran seeking benefits or a disability claim can take comfort knowing they’re in great hands thanks to his years of experience and knowledge. His personal goal is achieved when patients are approved for the benefits they seek.
Inspired to Help Other Veterans
“I was excited about the opportunity to help and serve veterans and their families navigate the complex medical and benefits system to get assistance with chronic diseases and challenging cancer diagnoses. I knew that my experience in the military, working in industry and as an educator would enable me to connect with and help men and women who have served our country get access to resources that would improve their quality of life.”
Dedicated to Serving Others
“I’ve always been drawn to work that serves others. My most rewarding experiences are when I have the opportunity to help and teach others. I spent nine years in the Army as an Armor Officer, and five years as a social studies middle school teacher before the opportunity to help veterans, patients and family members affected by asbestos was given to me in 2015. After more than eight years at The Mesothelioma Center, I’ve had the opportunity to help thousands of people, train more than 2,000 Veteran Service Officers in more than 20 states and assist hundreds of veterans get the benefits they deserve.”
A Love for the Outdoors
“I enjoy spending time with my family outdoors. We love hiking and camping in the mountains and exploring National Parks. I’m an avid mountain biker, which helps recharge my body and rebalance my emotional wellness. I’ve visited all 50 states and have explored 32 National Parks.”
Fighting for Our Veterans
“I feel satisfaction when I’m able to help a veteran and their family qualify for benefits from the VA as well as connect them with resources and compensation outside of the VA. I feel pride when someone that I’ve helped lets me know that their VA Disability or DIC claim was approved and they’re receiving benefits that help their living situation.”
Medical outreach liaison Jose Ortiz travels across the U.S. to interact with some of the very best mesothelioma physicians the nation has to offer. Jose’s research and hard work benefits every patient who reaches out to The Mesothelioma Center. He has compiled a network of mesothelioma specialists nationwide to ensure that patients get the very best care available. He scours the nation to find the latest breakthroughs on mesothelioma care so patients are always well-informed, empowering every patient to make choices about their care.
Jose says his former career in pharmaceutical sales made him aware of the dire need for services, information and resources for both patients and doctors. That experience sparked his passion to help patients overcome the many potential roadblocks to receiving the highest quality of care. Jose earned a bachelor’s degree in health services administration from University of Central Florida in 1998. He’s also a member of the American Thoracic Society, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer and the Association of Oncology Social Work. He’s also a VA-accredited claims agent.
Seeing the Challenges Firsthand
“I was in pharmaceutical/biotech sales for almost 15 years, and some of the last products I had were in oncology (cancer products). It really opened up my eyes to the challenges and importance of helping doctors and patients with important information/products/resources, to have a positive impact. Having products in rare diseases/cancers, also had an impact when I learned about mesothelioma and the many obstacles patients and families face, and I wanted to be a part of connecting healthcare professionals, patients and families with the best resources available for them.”
A Great Opportunity
“I got to know a few of the team members of this great company and began to talk about potentially coming over to The Mesothelioma Center as a part of the team. We spent a lot of time discussing the benefits and challenges of being a part of the medical outreach program. Most importantly, we really wanted medical outreach to be a vital, viable part of our organization. After doing research and initial plans, I was given the opportunity to join the team, along with our truly amazing Medical Outreach Director Missy Miller.”
“I have two amazing children, who are my world, and I enjoy being part of their busy lives. As they’ve gotten older, I let them know some of the challenges, impacts and help I provide patients and healthcare professionals. They realize the importance of my job, and that is a great feeling. Helping patients and knowing doctors across the country means that there are times where I do have to help at various times of the day. Instances like that actually have provided an opportunity to better connect with whomever I am speaking with and share personal, family information and events. I do enjoy golfing and spending time outdoors in Florida (woods and water) as well as other sports and activities. I coach a few of both of my kids' sports teams (soccer, flag football) throughout the year, which is also a great way to recharge. I try to exercise regularly to help recharge as well.”
Creating Connections for a Better Life
“Speaking with patients and families, especially the ones who face obstacles to receive care, really creates a unique bond. Getting to know these patients, their families and journey is inspiring and helps keep me motivated to look into ways to continue to help eliminate barriers to care. It helps drive the importance of networking and collaborating with healthcare professionals across the country to let them know the needs these patients have and the impact our services provide them.”
Assisting People Nationwide
“Helping patients, families and healthcare professionals nationwide is important to me. There is a definite outcome in the needs that they have and reach out about. Despite the amount of time, differences and difficulty, thankfully our team and company’s commitment to helping allows us to provide a solution. Being able to do so on a national level is really unique and special to me.”
As Hospice Care Director Amy Pelegrin has been connecting mesothelioma patients and their families with hospice care providers since 2015. Her passion is to make things as easy as possible for people whose lives have been impacted with a cancer diagnosis. Amy strives to make real connections with patients and their families, ensuring that everyone who reaches out to The Mesothelioma Center gets the support they need.
Amy makes connections with hospice care providers and palliative care facilities across the country. This gives patients the peace of mind knowing no matter where they live in the U.S., they can find the best care possible. For any patient who can’t find the care they require in their part of the country, Amy helps find transportation options. Amy is also working on building our Home Health & Hospice Outreach program.
Helping Those in Need
“I always wanted to help people. I have some medical background and a soft spot for those in need. I figured if I could guide patients and families through one of the most challenging times in their lives, I was doing a good thing. My hope is to make their lives better and take some of the burden off their shoulders.”
Change of Plans
“My plan was to work in a clinical setting as a nurse when I got a call asking if I would be interested in working as a patient advocate with mesothelioma patients and asbestos-related lung disease. I started working the graveyard shift at Asbestos.com. Once a job opened up as a full time PA, I was thrilled. I’ve been with The Mesothelioma Center for eight years now as an advocate and recently took on the role as Hospice & Palliative director as well. I love everything about my job and the people I help. I also work with an amazing team.”
“One of my biggest stress reliefs is running and working out. I’m able to release some negative energy and recharge. In my spare time I’m usually watching my favorite boy play baseball, basketball and football. My son keeps my husband and I quite busy. He’s about to turn 15 and is nonstop. He loves all sports, as do we, but his heart is all about baseball. I do love the beach, a good long walk with my dog Prax and a nice big glass of wine.”
Labor of Love
“Helping those in need is so important to me. I love what I do, and I love having the opportunity to work with mesothelioma patients and their families. My goal is to make their lives a bit easier. If I did that, I did my job.”
Karen Selby, RN
Registered nurse Karen Selby has been a patient advocate at The Mesothelioma Center since 2009. Karen’s background includes assisting lung surgeons at the University of Maryland. Her medical expertise gives her the ability to identify the unique needs of every mesothelioma survivor. Karen is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators, which is an organization that works to improve both care and quality of life for patients.
Karen enjoys seeing every patient become paired with the advocate best suited to assist them through their individual journey. Thanks to our knowledgeable and diverse patient advocate team, she says she appreciates that we can help each survivor and their loved ones no matter how unique their situation may be. She also helped create the Mesothelioma Center’s Community Outreach program in 2022.
Helping Comes Naturally
“I’m a nurse so it’s my nature to want to help people in need and advocate for them. I was honored to be asked to join the team.”
Nurse Turned Patient Advocate
“I began working for Asbestos.com in 2009 when the company was looking for someone to fill the need of helping patients through their cancer journey. It seems like forever ago but back then we didn’t even call ourselves patient advocates. We just did it. Whenever a patient shared a need, we did our best to share compassion, educate and provide the resources they needed to help them. As our list of services grew it became obvious what our team was. We are the true definition of a patient advocate. As we evolve, so do our resources. Our goal is to assist our patients and their families as best as we can. Things are always changing, which is a good thing. We put a lot of effort into staying current.”
Many Ways to Recharge
“Setting time to recharge is very important for me. I have several outlets. One is having a strong faith base. I’m very active in my church and volunteer in early childhood ministry. Another is competitive cycling and running. My husband and I also enjoy small weekend getaways in our camper with our dog. Visiting local state parks and going on long trail hikes is a great way to clear the mind. “
“What I love about our team is that we all have the same goal in mind, which is to help the patients, and their caregivers, that come to us in need. After an initial patient assessment, I can quickly determine what team members will best be suited to get on board to be a part of the patient’s care plan. Since we all bring different skill sets, it allows us to offer a broad range of expertise and individualized care. Our team is very respected and has built some amazing relationships with some of the most renowned experts in the mesothelioma arena. Because of this, we have access to national experts. It’s been a privilege to offer some of the experts in live educational events. The best thing is knowing that I’m making a difference in the lives of the patients and caregivers that I help. Their feedback and words of thanks are priceless and very rewarding.”
Snehal Smart, M.D.
The Mesothelioma Center’s in-house doctor Snehal Smart, M.D. helps answer medical questions for patients and their families. Snehal’s expertise allows her to explain often complicated medical information in easy to understand terms so no patient needs to feel overwhelmed with jargon on top of dealing with an illness. She’s always available to offer a helping hand to anyone who wants to understand more about their options for treatments that best fits their individual situation.
Snehal has a passion for connecting with patients, hearing their stories and then finding out how she can help improve their circumstances. She earned her medical degree at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine in 2012. Snehal’s bachelor’s degree is in biology and she minored in chemistry while at Nova Southeastern University.
Education Is the Inspiration
“Throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I always enjoyed teaching and tutoring classmates and students. I also grew a love for science, biology and medicine which led me to attend medical school and further my knowledge. Once I graduated and obtained my medical degree, I wanted to pursue a career in further educating patients about their diseases. I wanted to assist them with their concerns – not just medical, but also the emotions involved with a chronic illness – how it affects their life goals, career and other aspects of their life. I also wanted to help them obtain financial assistance. This inspired me to become a patient advocate where I can use the knowledge and experience I obtained in medical training to help patients and their families get the resources and guidance they need.”
A Passion for Patient Advocacy
“When I was first exploring careers where I could help patients better understand their chronic illnesses and treatments, as well as provide more resources, I worked for a law firm for some time. I wanted to learn more about the flip side of what a patient may experience when they have a work or accident-related medical condition and how they manage treatment and seek legal recourse. This led me to become a patient advocate at The Mesothelioma Center where I assist patients with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases to better understand the diagnosis process, treatment and available emotional and financial resources.”
Proud to Be Making a Difference
“I love coffee, hot fries, Taco Bell (or really any Mexican food) and spending time with my family and friends. I live with my husband and two young sons. I’m fortunate to have parents and siblings close by. I love taking my sons to the park or just staying home some days. I really enjoy organizing and cleaning. I also enjoy video games (Nintendo Switch); I can play for hours during my alone time. Working with patients diagnosed with terminal cancer and assisting them with their medical, mental health and financial needs as well as guiding their caregivers can be emotional for me at times. However, when I complete my day and hear kind words from patients or their loved ones about how I provided them a wealth of knowledge they didn’t have before speaking with me, I feel that I’ve made a positive impact in their lives, which feeds my energy to keep going. I’m proud and happy to say I truly love what I do as my career.”
“My favorite thing about being a PA is the impact and difference I make in a patient’s journey. I value connecting with patients and their families coping with mesothelioma diagnosis. Listening to their stories, learning about their lives and families and understanding how their diagnosis has affected them in so many ways is rewarding. I’ve learned to recognize what the patient or family's concerns are and help them understand their options or give them points to think about.”
Making Special Connections
“A majority of the connections I make with survivors and their families are almost as if we’ve known each other for so long and in some cases become long-term friendships. Using my medical knowledge, I’m able to help a patient and their family understand their disease or treatment in layman’s terms. I take my time listening to their concerns and needs, addressing each one. Clinicians can sometimes have limited time with each patient and may be unable to take time to discuss every question or concern in detail, but that is the role of a patient advocate. We bridge this gap and provide survivors the tools that will help them in the long run.”