Kitty DeMaria is no stranger to cancer. She was initially diagnosed with breast cancer at 37.
Ten years later, the mother of two noticed a spot on her arm.
"It's something I had been noticing on my arm probably for several months and I was concerned enough that I went to a dermatologist and at that time, she said she didn't see anything,” DeMaria says.
Three months passed and that spot was still there so she went back to the same dermatologist.
"Saw that doctor again and she was pretty freaked out. She knew immediately it was bad," DeMaria said.
DeMaria was diagnosed with Stage 3 malignant melanoma. It was advanced but treatable.
"I didn’t really do anything except an experimental drug for 7 months, once a month for 7 months, and it was gone for 12 years,” she says.
DeMaria thought that after 12 years the cancer was gone.
Then, out of nowhere four years ago, she felt a constant ringing in one of her ears.
"I went for an MRI and my husband is the one who saw the tumor in my brain," she said.
Her husband saw the results because he's a neurologist at Wilmington Health where she had the MRI.
DeMaria said she was worried about him seeing the results.
"When I went in, I said, I know you're not allowed to tell me what you see on the scan but could you say ‘call your daughter’ because I really don't want my husband to go through this alone. Made me a little teary,” she recalled. “The manager left the room and the girl that was doing the scan said ‘call your daughter.’”
It was a brain tumor, a Stage 4 metastatic melanoma which meant it had spread.
The melanoma had spread to her brain, part of her stomach and her lungs. That was 2014.
Up to that year, it was an almost certain deadly diagnosis.
Then, DeMaria was told about a new drug created to treat advanced melanoma.
On Sept. 4, 2014, the FDA approved Keytruda (pembrolizumab). Keytruda is an immunotherapy drug that uses a person's own immune system to destroy cancer cells, unlike chemotherapy where chemicals are put into the body to kill them.
In 2017, the FDA approved the use of Keytruda for other inoperable cancers, including non-small cell lung cancer.
DeMaria was one of the first patients at Duke Medical Center to get the treatment for melanoma. She calls the treatments a miracle.
"After 13 months, I had three clear scans,” she said with a smile.
That was almost three years ago.
DeMaria is what's called a complete responder. She has no signs of cancer and she’s even stopped the Keytruda treatments.
"That is pretty miraculous for anybody who is Stage 4 anything," she said.
While DeMaria no longer gets the immunotherapy treatments, she does go back to Duke every four months for scans.
These days, she doesn’t focus on her multiple bouts with cancer or the possibility of it coming back. Instead, she cherishes the time with her family she’s convinced was made possible from a miracle drug.
"It's enabled me to see my grandchild and spend time with my family,” she said. “Nobody knows what tomorrow brings, but today's pretty good."
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