Patient Care

Lou Iovoli

Jan. 22, 2016
Head & Neck Cancer

Competing in an Ironman marathon is a grueling process — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run. Elite athletes train for months to build the strength and stamina to finish.

In 2007, Lou Iovoli was on that track and had finished respectably in his first half-Ironman. “I’d spent two years working my way up to complete the half Ironman distance. Completing that first one was a great feeling. I was on a high,” says Iovoli, the father of four boys.

Just 24 hours later, Iovoli was devastated to learn he had a large tumor at the base of his tongue, extending to the palate and larynx. It was Stage IV cancer.

After months of life-saving treatment at Wilmot Cancer Institute, the Victor resident was back on the training circuit — swimming across Canandaigua Lake and bicycling and running the winding roads of the Finger Lakes — in preparation for the Ford Ironman Competition in Madison, Wisc.

He used the event to raise funds for the Wilmot Cancer Institute and raise awareness of the benefits of exercise for people with cancer.

“I wouldn’t be here today if the Wilmot doctors and nurses weren’t with me every step of the way,” says Iovoli, vice president of sales and marketing at Hammer Packaging. “Exercise was a huge component of my treatment and recovery. I want to prove to other patients and doctors that exercise during and after cancer treatment can offer tremendous benefits to people. This is my way of giving back and helping other people who are going through cancer.”

Birthday surprise

During months of training for his first half-Ironman, Iovoli had a dull earache that medications weren’t relieving and his physician sent him to an otolaryngologist, who discovered a cauliflower-sized tumor at the base of Iovoli’s tongue. It had grown so bulky that it was touching on nerves in his jaw, causing the ear pain.

That was July 23, 2007, his 42nd birthday.

“I went out to my car and just cried for about a half hour. I remember it was such a perfect summer day and all I could do was think of all the miserable things that could happen to me and after a while, I stopped and realized I had to get over it,” he says. His wife and sons were his priority as he faced his own mortality.

He sought the expertise of the Wilmot Cancer Institute, the region’s largest center for cancer care and research. Medical oncologist Kishan Pandya, M.D., and radiation oncologist Yuhchyau Chen, M.D., prescribed an aggressive regimen combining chemotherapy and twice-a-day radiation therapy to destroy the tumor.

“Given the locally advanced nature of his cancer, we recommended a rather intensified regimen…and it takes a lot of preparation and monitoring to get patients through the treatments,” Chen says.

His treatment was difficult. The chemotherapy made him sick and the radiation therapy irritated his throat and mouth. He couldn’t eat and lost 40 pounds, dropping to a slight 128 pounds.

“Lou always kept a great attitude during his treatment, despite the side effects he experienced,” Chen says. The multidisciplinary approach that Wilmot Cancer Institute offers —bringing all of the head and neck cancer specialists together — helped Iovoli during his care and now as a survivor, she says.

Back on track

Iovoli continued to exercise during his treatment. “I believe in balance of the mind, body and spirit, and exercise is an avenue for that,” he says. “I walked every day, even if it was only halfway around my cul-de-sac.”

Eventually, he built enough stamina to walk around department stores and then the malls before returning to light training.

“I remember going to watch the 2007 Rochester Marathon, and I sat on the grass with a feeding tube tied to a tree so I could watch my friends run. A year later, I ran that marathon,” Iovoli recalls, with a tremor in his throat

While swimming laps at the local YMCA, Iovoli was inspired by the motivational messages on the wall and decided to make his own: “I TRI for life.” TRI, which is short for triathlon, stands for tenacious, responsive and interactive. He vowed to be:

  • Tenacious with his doctors at the Wilmot Cancer Institute, asking questions and challenging them while following instructions;
  • Responsive with “people around me, making a point of proactively communicating and participating with family and friends.”
  • Interactive in the world. “I won’t lock myself in the bedroom and feel sorry for myself.”

His positive attitude and spirit serves as an inspiration to others, and through his online social networks, he receives support from people around the world. Iovoli speaks to groups about his experience, encouraging them to be determined to meet any challenges ahead. As he finished treatment, the immediate challenge was finishing the Ironman.

He wore a one-of-a-kind Wilmot Cancer Institute jersey. He planned to cross the finish line with his fist in the air and two fingers up to signify the two years since his diagnosis.

As he thought about wearing his new jersey, “I get chills. Sometimes when I’m training I just have to stop because I breakdown. I still can’t believe I’m here. I thank the Wilmot Cancer Center team everyday because I have a chance to enjoy the world.”