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How a Support Network Helped One Patient Beat Ovarian Cancer
January 18, 2019
After battling ovarian cancer, Domenica Devito has been in remission for several years. She credits the physicians and nurses at Weill Cornell Medicine for saving her life. Among this team is Dr. Eloise Chapman-Davis, a specialist in gynecological oncology, whose innovative treatment has helped prevent the cancer from recurring.
Domenica’s story reminds us of the tremendous emotional and physical toll that cancer treatment can take—not only on the patient but the entire family. Without a doubt, cancer treatment can be scary, exhausting, isolating, and confusing. With compassionate and expert care, however, these challenges can be lessened. After all, no one should have to face it alone.
Domenica, an Italian immigrant living in Brooklyn, enjoys a very active social life, centered around her loving family. In March of 2014, she woke up to discover that she had hemorrhaged while sleeping. “It was an unreal amount of blood,” she recalled. “I knew that something was really wrong and quickly found my daughter.” Domenica did not have any symptoms before this and panicked.
Paulina, one of Domenica’s daughters who lives in Queens, said, “I will never forget that morning. We knew we had to get help right away.”
Fearing the worst, Domenica a wanted to go to an academic medical center, not a local hospital. “My daughter had been a patient at Weill Cornell Medicine for asthma,” explained Paulina, “so we knew that we would find experts there. We were terrified and very sure she had cancer.”
Paulina quickly arranged for other members of their family to look after her young children and then drove Domenica to Manhattan and the Weill Cornell Medicine emergency department. There, Domenica hemorrhaged several more times and received four transfusions due to the blood loss.
During this time, several other family members rushed to Weill Cornell to support Domenica, including her other daughter, Antoinette, who lived in Virginia.
After several tests, the physicians confirmed that Domenica had large cancerous growths in her ovaries, as well as near her colon and liver.
“My response, at first,” recalled Domenica, “was thinking the worst. I didn’t want any tubes or needles or to be resuscitated. I was scared and shocked, and I didn’t want to do anything.”
Understanding her options
Domenica is most comfortable speaking Italian, so Weill Cornell Medicine put together a team of interpreters and physicians to speak to her in her language during this difficult time. “They wanted my mother to understand the disease and learn about the different treatment options without us interpreting for her or speaking for her,” explained Paulina. “If it weren’t for those doctors who explained the treatments in her language, immediately after the diagnosis, she would have refused all treatment.”
Domenica soon felt empowered with information — and energized to fight the cancer. “It took four hours to go through everything,” recalled Domenica. “Afterward, I came out ready to fight. I wanted to live and live well. I wanted to live for my grandchildren.”
“It was a heart-wrenching day for our entire family. But my mother was so strong,” impressed Paulina. “Her strength — and sense of humor — were commendable.”
The care team at Weill Cornell Medicine decided that the most effective strategy was for Domenica to undergo two rounds of chemotherapy: one before and one after surgery to remove the cancer.
“Domenica is one of my many lovely patients. She had stage IIIC ovarian cancer,” explained Dr. Chapman-Davis, “and we worked with her to minimize the side effects of treatment as much as possible, as she requested.”
Facing the challenges of treatment as a family
Domenica moved in with Paulina during this time for support. Mother and daughter—both highly energetic, positive, and humorous women—soon felt drained by the challenges of chemotherapy. Domenica quickly lost her hair and often felt too weak to drink water. She was also at risk for blood clots, so she needed to be given shots of preventative medicine frequently, which Paulina learned to administer. While understandably distressed, Paulina worked hard to help her mother feel as comfortable as possible. She created a calm environment that promoted rest.
Both women were surprised by how saddened and concerned Paulina’s two children became over the course of chemotherapy. “It was very hard on both my son and daughter,” recalled Paulina. “It was difficult to see them so upset, and I often did not know how to help them process what was happening or feel less scared.”
To encourage both her mother and daughter drink more water, Paulina developed a game and rewarded whoever drank the most each day. “This family competition became an unexpected source of fun during this time,” she explained. “We got special drinking glasses for both of them, and they helped each other out.”
“My granddaughter, Jessica, became my little nurse,” Domenica gushed. “She helped me, and that made her feel better, too.”
During this time, the Weill Cornell care team observed Domenica diligently to ensure that she did not become too depleted or weak, and remained healthy overall. After one round of chemotherapy, Domenica underwent surgery, which lasted six and a half hours, to remove the cancerous cells. “I was told,” recalled Domenica, “that they removed 10 pounds of cancer. 10 pounds!”
A network of support
“Being a caregiver is very hard,” Paulina said. “It’s not something you understand until you go through it yourself. You have to take it day by day.” She had to learn how to care for her mother, as well as herself, during this challenging process.
Paulina relied heavily on her husband and sister for emotional support, as well as help running their home and raising their small children. She also worked closely with the staff at Weill Cornell Medicine to schedule appointments that were convenient for her and her family.
“The doctors and nurses understood that we had to travel from Brooklyn,” explained Paulina, “and that I had two children in school. They were able to arrange appointments at more convenient times so that we weren’t traveling during rush hours and I was able to spend the evenings with my children. It was a tough balance, but the staff all accommodated. It’s hard to express how much that helped throughout the process.”
Both Domenica and Paulina drew comfort and support from their family and church communities. “We knew that there were so many people praying for my mother,” Paulina said. “It was a good support system for us. My mother easily talked to others about her feelings.”
Two years without recurrence
After Domenica recovered from the surgery, Dr. Chapman-Davis suggested that she undergo another round of chemotherapy to prevent the cancer from recurring. Just as before, the team at Weill Cornell Medicine focused on minimizing uncomfortable side effects and monitoring her carefully.
Domenica, as well as Paulina and Antoinette, felt more at ease during the second round; they knew what to expect and prepared accordingly. Paulina’s children, however, were shocked to see their grandmother appearing so sick again, so they needed extra attention and care. This time around, Antoinette stayed with Domenica for over one month.
Domenica saw the value of her sense of humor and drew upon this to a greater extent during the second round of chemotherapy. “We pretended that the liquid I drank before the PET scans was limoncello,” laughed Domenica. “I joked around with the nurses; we laughed together a lot.”
Her positivity, combined with the nurses warm and compassionate care, helped her stay as comfortable as possible. “I tried to think of the hospital as a spa,” she explained, “somewhere where I would be taken care of and relax.”
After Domenica completed the second round of chemotherapy, Dr. Chapman-Davis suggested that she take an experimental drug to prevent the cancer from recurring. “After she went into remission,” explained Dr. Chapman-Davis, “she started on a targeted parp-inhibitor. It has been two years with no recurrence.”
“It’s a miracle,” Paulina asserted. “We are so impressed that they are willing to try these new techniques and my mother has the opportunity to take these new drugs.”
Domenica is equally impressed and happy with the treatment. “I can contact Dr. Chapman-Davis’ support staff at any time with questions,” she said, “and they monitor me frequently. They help me feel as good as possible.” Now, Domenica enjoys a more active life and travels often to visit friends and family.
"Gli angeli sono vicino"
Domenica continues to center her life around her grandchildren and seeing them grow. “I am so happy to see my eldest grandchild graduate high school,” she gushed.
When reflecting on her difficult path, Domenica recalled a phrase that she told herself often during treatment: “Gli angeli sono vicino a me” or “The angels are near me.”
To this day, she considers the nurses and physicians that helped her to be her angels. “The nurses and doctors were so caring throughout all the challenges of chemotherapy and surgery,” explained Paulina.
“Because of my mother’s strong will, God’s will, Dr. Chapman-Davis, and the entire care team at Weill Cornell Medicine,” Paulina continued, “she is here today.”