Survivor Spotlight: Writer Deanna Pai

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Survivor Spotlight: Writer Deanna Pai

Deanna Pai was diagnosed with cancer for the first time when she was 23.

Hepatoblastoma is a rare liver cancer typically found in infants. Only a few dozen adult cases have been diagnosed – and virtually none as early as hers. She was Stage I.

“My gynecologist first discovered it during a routine exam,” Pai said. “She was palpating my abdomen and felt a mass on the right side of my body.”

An MRI confirmed a grapefruit-sized tumor on her liver. A few weeks later, she had surgery to remove the tumor. When her cancer returned nearly two years later, it was time to try chemotherapy.

“I had four kinds of chemo. But the main one was cisplatin,” she said.

The challenge of cisplatin

Cisplatin is often called the “penicillin of cancer drugs.” Discovered at Michigan State University in 1965, the chemical compound prevents the DNA in cancer cells from replicating, confusing them and causing them to die.

It’s a powerful cancer drug, but that comes with some challenges for the patients.

“It’s a doozie,” Pai said. “I needed a lot of it, so I was hooked up to an IV for about eight hours each time.”

Nearly half of that IV time was for hydration purposes before and after the administration of the drug. That’s because cisplatin is extremely toxic, but its toxicity can be mitigated in patients who are well-hydrated.

Pai and her medical team paid close attention to her treatment, watching for side effects such as hearing loss and peripheral neuropathy – a numbness or tingling of the hands and feet.

“During treatment, I would have ice packs duct taped to my ankles and wrists in the hopes the cisplatin wouldn’t travel all the way to my extremities,” she said.

It worked. She doesn’t have any lingering neuropathy. “My feet just get a little crampy from time to time.”

As for her hearing, regular tests were performed before, during and after chemotherapy. “I went from having extremely good hearing to normal hearing,” she said. “I used to be a pretty good eavesdropper, but I’m a little less so now.”

One positive side effect of cisplatin was not physical, but emotional.

“Something that was nice – I guess, relatively speaking – was that because the cisplatin treatment took so long, I would have a lot of visitors,” Pai said. “I could say, ‘I’ll be here from 8 in the morning until about 7 p.m., so if you want to stop by …’ I almost looked forward to it because I knew I’d get a crowd of people coming through.”

She said she knows that might not be the case for everyone, but it was an easy way for her friends to be supportive.

“Friends from out of town would come in and spend the day with me,” she said. “A few friends even flew from across the country. So, there was an upside to it.”

Cancer … again

Seven months after her treatments ended, Pai’s cancer returned a third time, “After I had hit my lifetime dose of some of the chemo drugs.” So, she explored the option of a liver transplant. Her cousin was a match, and he gave Pai a lobe of his liver.

“It’s still so rare, people are pretty skittish about it,” Pai said of liver transplants from living donors. “It’s just amazing what the transplant did. I live a pretty normal life now.”

Pai, now 28, is a freelance writer, living in New York City. Following her chemo treatments, she quit her job at Cosmopolitan magazine. “I felt like I had gotten into this really sad, comfortable cycle of going to work and coming home. I felt restless.”

She went to Paris for a month and has spent a month there every year since. “I work from there. It’s a nice change because I live about four blocks from Sloan Kettering, which was convenient during treatment, but it’s hard sometimes to walk by and revisit it every single day.”

Pai freelances for magazines such as Women's Health and Glamour, writes essays and does copywriting for various beauty brands. “It’s great because I do still have quite a few follow-up appointments, and having a freelance schedule makes that convenient.”

More than a job change, though, cancer did change Pai’s life – though not in any goopy, Hollywood-ending kind of way.

“I think it’s amplified parts of my personality that were already there,” she said. “If anything new came of it, it would probably be anger. On some days, it’s not in the best way, but other days it’s a really good, righteous anger that I feel entitled to. It’s really motivating, actually.”

Pai got back into running following her chemo treatments, participating in a Cancer to 5K training program with other cancer survivors. “It’s great because everyone showed up to run and you didn’t talk about your cancer, you just complained about having to run.”

She still has scans every three months, and because her cancer returned twice, she’s at higher risk for another recurrence.

“Some days I’m very bitter about it,” she said. “But other days I feel like, ‘Well, I’m still alive, so it can’t be that bad.’”