Dr. Alexis D’Elia didn’t take on easy tasks. She always tackled the most difficult ones and executed them with grace, style, wit and focus — attributes she brought to her battle with breast cancer, her family said Friday.
D’Elia, a cardiologist and author of more than a dozen scientific articles on the heart and infections that can damage it, died Oct. 26 of an aggressive form of breast cancer — HER2-positive disease. She was 34.
Breast cancer had become an unwanted four-year occupation, her family said.
For most who develop D’Elia’s type of cancer, there is a highly sophisticated medication called Herceptin, a targeted drug that quells the activity of proteins stippling the surface of tumor cells.
But D’Elia’s cancer was tough, her family said, and was resistant to the drug from the very start. A wide roster of standard chemotherapies that followed were only fleetingly effective. D’Elia was the first to diagnose the tumor in self-administered diagnostic imaging.
“Alexis was such a fighter: brilliant, beautiful — so very beautiful — such an incredible wit,” Joseph D’Elia said of his daughter, who was a staff cardiologist at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.
Father and daughter journeyed together, D’Elia said, seeking out doctors and leading scientists, including Bruce Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who came to their home to help the family wade through research papers in search of hope.
But the cancer, Joseph D’Elia said, relentlessly spread and was found in bone tissue, his daughter’s liver and lymph nodes.
Still, the pair was on a mission to decode one of nature’s most insidious secrets — breast cancer that repels advanced technological drugs. “I am a lawyer and I learned so much. I learned a whole new language,” her father said.
Most of all, D’Elia said he learned “the lexicon” of insurance companies and that of the researchers who construct government-funded scientific studies. Their strict protocols for clinical trials can reject patients who might benefit from a specific drug, he said.
His daughter was not chosen for a key clinical trial they hoped would help as numerous standard chemotherapies were failing.
“I will fight until my last day — anything I can do,” D’Elia said to help others avoid setbacks in their care. He bemoans restrictions on mammograms that designate them as a screening tool for older women, not younger ones like his daughter, whom he said could have benefited. D’Elia said his struggle honors his daughter’s legacy.
A resident of Laurel Hollow, Alexis Ann D’Elia was born Nov. 25, 1981, and attended Friends Academy in Locust Valley before enrolling at Connecticut College where she majored in neuroscience and biology. She graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average in 2003, then headed to Grenada in the Caribbean where she attended St. George’s University School of Medicine.
Upon graduation in 2007, D’Elia trained for three years at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola in internal medicine and then went to Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx where she completed a two-year fellowship in cardiology. Advanced training in cardiac imaging followed.
“We lived our lives as best friends,” said her brother, Justin, of Cold Spring Harbor, who is 20 months older. “Alexis had the best sense of humor on the planet. She was also perfect.
“I went to college and dropped out of pre-med and graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology. Alexis doubled down and decided to do a double major. I always got in trouble. Alexis never got in trouble.”
Sister-in-law Stefanie Palma marvels about Alexis D’Elia’s style, sense of humor and fortitude.
“She followed her treatment, every step up until the end she was fighting because she wanted to live,” Palma said.
Other survivors include her mother, Ann Grace D’Elia, and nephews Joseph Luca D’Elia and James Jude D’Elia of Cold Spring Harbor.
A wake was held Saturday at Beney Funeral Home in Syosset. Funeral services will be Monday at 10:30 a.m. at Locust Valley Cemetery.