Providing Hope and Healing, One Patient at a Time
Lois DeMaio—a nurse practitioner working in the surgical unit at Northwell Health’s Northern Westchester Hospital—provides her patients with so much more than outstanding surgical care. She offers them encouragement, hope, and the unique perspective and empathy of someone who also has faced a life-changing medical diagnosis.
Lois’ family’s experience with cancer dates back to her sister Linda’s breast cancer diagnosis when she was just 36. At 62, Linda had a recurrence. This prompted Lois, Linda, and their two brothers to get tested for the BRCA gene mutation, which is associated with several cancers, including breast cancer. The four siblings were surprised when they all tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation. Following this news, Lois immediately took action. She met with an oncologist at Northern Westchester Hospital/Mount Kisco Medical Group, who prescribed tamoxifen for five years and frequent preventative tests including MRI scans, skin checks, and mammograms. Lois also underwent surgical removal of both ovaries to prevent ovarian cancer. The oncologist told Lois about the link to pancreatic cancer as well, but this didn’t heavily concern Lois since she had no issues related to her pancreas.
When Lois was 62, she was working in the operating room with a surgeon she knew well and mentioned she was experiencing sporadic, sharp pain on the left side of her back that felt like someone was jabbing her back with a pin. At first, Lois assumed it was from the stress and strain she put on her back while helping her mother move.
The surgeon recommended she have an exam in his office, and from there, everything snowballed. The surgeon ordered a CT scan of Lois’ abdomen and pelvis, and the results concerned him, so he ordered a CT-guided liver biopsy. Lois will never forget how devastated the surgeon—both a friend and a colleague—was to tell Lois she was suffering from Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She had a 7.1-centimeter tumor in her pancreas—approximately the length of a typical small orange or the width of an adult’s palm—plus two cancerous lesions in her liver and two cancerous lymph nodes. Given her experience as a surgical nurse, Lois’ first reaction was to ask the surgeon to operate and remove all of the cancer. The surgeon immediately referred Lois to an oncologist, who shared the crushing news that her tumor was inoperable; she would need to have chemotherapy to first shrink it before surgery could even be considered a viable option.
Lois’ entire family was shocked and broke down when she was diagnosed. “My attitude was, ‘We’re going to fight this together. I’m going to need you to just support me. I’m doing everything I can, despite being devastated, and I’m determined to survive.’” Lois felt blessed to have the unwavering support of her husband, daughter, sister, and the rest of her family. “There are people who don’t have that, and I don’t take it lightly that I was fortunate to have so many of my loved ones rallying around me, surrounding me with their strength and positivity. I also had the incredible support and resources available at Northwell Health.”
Lois ultimately sought a second opinion at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and decided to have her treatment there. She prayed that the FOLFIRINOX chemotherapy she was prescribed would work. However, after her second infusion, she had a pulmonary embolism which caused a mini stroke, attributed to a combination of the tumor and her not being on a blood thinner soon enough. She was incredibly lucky she had no residual side effects, and once the situation resolved, she resumed her chemotherapy. She then suffered another setback when she was hospitalized for pneumonia. When she returned to work five months later, she tried her best to maintain a positive outlook and adapt to her new routine: Every other Friday she had lab work and then would be connected to her chemotherapy infusion pump for the weekend. She would return on Sunday to get the pump disconnected and she usually went back to work on Monday, in an effort to maintain as much normalcy in her life as she could.
Lois stayed on FOLFIRINOX for 2 ½ years. The possibility of losing her hair during treatment was very traumatic for Lois. “Purchasing my wig made me feel mentally strong and like I had the power to control that awful side effect,” she said. During treatment, she followed a healthy, protein-rich diet with minimal sugar. To cope with side effects like pain and neuropathy, she had acupuncture and Reiki therapy. Additionally, she prioritized her mental health and despite some dark days, she tried to live as full a life as possible. She had complete trust in her medical team, which bolstered her confidence that she would beat this disease.
Lois had an incredible response to chemotherapy, and with every scan, her tumors continued to shrink. In fact, her pancreatic tumor decreased so significantly that her oncologist recommended she stop chemotherapy and instead enroll in a clinical trial. Since June 2021, every six weeks Lois has received an infusion of the immunotherapy treatment Keytruda® (pembrolizumab), and she takes the PARP inhibitor Lynparza® (olaparib) daily. Research has demonstrated that PARP inhibitors can be effective in treating cancer resulting from a BRCA mutation. She is tolerating the regimen well and can remain on it indefinitely, as long as her lab work continues to be in the normal range. She continues to work two days a week in the surgical unit of the hospital where she’s now worked for the past 20 years. “There is something so fulfilling and gratifying about helping my patients and seeing I can still care for them and have even more empathy for what they’re going through based on the health challenges I’ve faced,” Lois shared. “I’m giving them hope, I’m suggesting coping strategies that helped me, and I’m showing them they’re not alone in fighting cancer,” Lois added.
Lois undergoes scans every three months, and thankfully, her latest scans continue to show no evidence of disease. November 2023 marks five years of being a pancreatic cancer survivor, and even though she is thrilled to be approaching that milestone, there’s always some fear and anxiety related to a potential recurrence. “My oncologist has many treatments in his arsenal for me. He has assured me that if something comes up, there is chemotherapy we haven’t tried yet, as well as other treatment options, and we will work through a plan together,” Lois said.
Lois learned about the Lustgarten Foundation through a friend who lost her first husband to pancreatic cancer and is now actively involved in raising awareness and research funding through the Foundation’s annual Westchester Walk for Pancreatic Cancer Research. Even before Lois was diagnosed, she would attend the walk to support her friend. This year, in celebration of her five years as a survivor, Lois will be joining the Foundation’s largest walk in Long Island on October 1. She has organized a team, Walk for a Cure!, and is committed to raising awareness of the need for screening for people, like her, who are at an increased risk of pancreatic cancer due to their family history.
“Research is the only way to find out where this disease is coming from and why some people are successful on treatment and others aren’t. Everyone can participate in this cause; it’s all about helping those in need by showing up, whether you donate, volunteer your time, serve as a caregiver, or give support and resources.”
With so much to look forward to, including a baby grandson and a trip to Portugal, Lois knows how lucky she is to be healthy now, and how close she almost came to another outcome. “My situation would probably have turned out differently had I decided not to get my back pain checked, so I’m very thankful I listened to what my body was telling me,” Lois remarked. “Now, when I say my prayers, I ask to stay well, keep fighting, and bring strength and healing to patients and their families who are currently going through a difficult cancer journey.”