In June 2016, Kassie DePaiva was preparing to return to DAYS as Eve with a new, one-year contract when she discovered a lump in her breast. Though it didn’t turn out to be breast cancer, after seeing a specialist, DePaiva learned she had acute myeloid leukemia. Here, she and husband James DePaiva (ex-Max, ONE LIFE TO LIVE) tell their story.
Soap Opera Digest: When you first heard that it was cancer, what did you think?
Kassie DePaiva: Well, I knew that leukemia was not a death sentence. I didn’t know anything about cancer, because I never had to deal with it. It’s kind of like sitting in one of those Charlie Brown TV shows. All you hear is, “Wah wah wah, wah wah wah.” All I could think was, “Well, God, if this what you’ve got for me, show me the way.” I just really put my faith in the Lord and went from there. Jimmy was unbelievable, and never left my side. It was just really important to have such a smart, loving man beside me the whole time, taking notes and just grabbing all the information that I was just too stressed out to hear.
James DePaiva: I didn’t really react other than, “Okay, what do we need to do now? What do we need to do today? What comes next? How do we deal with this?” It was just pretty much going into action.
Kassie: It was kind of like when we found out [son] JQ was deaf 19 years ago. You have a moment where you kind of go, “Oh, s–t,” and then you step on that boat, and you just hope that you have a captain of the ship that leads you where you need to go.
James: There definitely was fear, because while they told her not to look at the Internet, they said I could up to a certain point, and from what we’d been told by everyone, it did not look very good for Kassie, and I didn’t know if I’d have my wife by the time Christmas came around, so it was fear of losing her.
Digest: What were your next steps?
Kassie: I found out over the Fourth of July weekend, so I had to wait to see a doctor. I had a wonderful doctor at New York Presbyterian who’s the top in her field, Dr. Gail Roboz. I met with her the following Tuesday, and she spent a good hour-and-a-half with Jimmy and me. The lab prior to my bone marrow biopsy pretty much said that I had acute myeloid leukemia, but we didn’t know exactly what the extent was. So after my first bone marrow biopsy, she called the next day and said, “Well, it’s not the awful, awful leukemia that I thought it was, but the sooner you get into treatment, the better you’re going to be.” I said, “When can I start?” She said, “When do you want to?” I said, “Today.” So, I had Wayne Bilotti [former OLTL hairdresser] give me a haircut, because I knew I was going to lose all my hair, and we went into the hospital. It was a whirlwind; I was completely blindsided. During that time I, of course, had to call [DAYS Co-Executive Producer] Greg Meng. I knew my treatment was going to be lengthy, but I just didn’t know what was going to happen.
Digest: What happened when the treatment began?
Kassie: My first hospital stay was 24 days, and probably around the tenth day, the team of doctors came in and said that I had 16 abnormal chromosomes, which really respond well to the treatment. They said that not only would I be in remission possibly in six months, but it could be a cure. So I looked over at Jimmy after the doctors left and I said, “Is that good?” He goes, “That’s really good,” and we both cried, of course. When you’re in the middle of it, it wasn’t even one day at a time, it was one moment at a time. In the hospital, I would think, “Okay, I’m feeling really good, and it’s 8 o’clock in the morning. Three people want to come over and visit.” By 12 o’clock, I could be completely nauseous, have a high fever, throwing up, diarrhea. I mean, sicker than a dog. You just never know how your body’s going to react, so when you say remission, you think, “Okay, am I just going to go back to my normal life?” That’s what you hope for, but then even when you are in remission, they won’t say complete cure for five years with most cancers, anyway.
Digest: What was it like getting through every day?
Kassie: The chemotherapy was really, really intense. My first round of chemo was seven days straight, 24 hours a day, then 12 days later your hair falls out, but during that time, there are certain side effects: You get sores in your mouth, you get constipation, diarrhea, a lack of taste. All in all, you just feel really lousy, and you go back into the hospital for your second, third, fourth and fifth round of chemo, and that chemo is 60 times stronger than the first round of chemo that you do. It’s a constant treatment even though you’re not in the hospital for some of it, and it’s a journey that I can’t believe that I have gone through. It feels very surreal. The first week I was in the hospital, I kept waiting for [former OLTL stage manager] Alan Needleman to come in and go, “Cut! Okay, Kassie, it’s time for you to get into your wedding dress. We’re moving on.”
Digest: Who were you in touch with during this time?
Kassie: So many of my ONE LIFE TO LIVE family really stepped up, and even the DAYS family from out here would call and text. I had great visitors, great love, great support: Nathan Fillion [ex-Joey] and Bob Krimmer [ex-Andrew] and Tuc Watkins [ex-David] all flew in one day right after my first round of chemo and came over and made a great brunch. Susan Batten [ex-Luna] was there. Bob Woods [ex-Bo] came to see me three times. Hillary [B. Smith, ex-Nora] came. Robin Strasser [ex-Dorian] was there every other day. Renée Goldsberry [ex-Evangeline], Kristen Alderson [ex-Starr], Gina Tognoni [Phyllis, Y&R; ex-Kelly], [former Co-Head Writer] Lorraine Broderick, Florencia [Lozano, ex-Téa], [former Head Writer] Ron Carlivati all came. Nathan Purdee [ex-Hank] was there every other day. Just an unbelievable outpouring of goodness. Goodness that really carried me through. I think what made a huge difference for me, and my journey, were the people that were around me.
Digest: That’s amazing. How did it feel in terms of timing since you had just gone back to DAYS?
Kassie: It sucked. It was terrible. They were slowly easing me in, they said that they had this great story, I don’t know what it was, but at that point you just have to let go.You have to have peace about the whole thing because there’s nothing that I could have done to change that bump in the road. [Executive Producer] Ken Corday called me and said, “When you are well, you just let us know and you always have a place in the DAYS family,” and I said, “Well, I hope that I will be able to return and be Eve,” and I thanked him for the opportunity, and that’s all you can do. And then you just have to wait and see and pray to God that you have the strength and the fortitude to get through it all.
Digest: How did you tell JQ?
Kassie: I told him everything serious along the way, and we were all frightened, but at the same time, we were a family. I do believe seeing the outpouring of love from my friends — he’s a huge Nathan [Fillion] fan, so when Nathan came and was so loving and wonderful, it brought some levity to it — helped him a great deal. My goal for JQ was for him to get on with his life. He was in the middle of his sophomore year of college. I had a superhero husband that completely took care of me. So many people are out there that are caregivers are going through their journey, and I’m sure it’s even more painful on certain levels because they’re watching the person that they love suffer.
Digest: How was it for you to lose your hair?
Kassie: It’s no big deal.
James: You didn’t take it too well the first time you saw a picture of yourself.
Kassie: Now, that’s true. I went outside, it was a hot August day, and I was just basking in the sun, and I saw the picture and I thought, “Oh, my God, I look like a cancer patient.” I looked like a sad cancer patient, so that was hard. But I just chose to be grateful that I could look at myself and be alive, because there are days that you just think you’re going to die. It’s the 23rd Psalm — you really walk through the valley in the shadow of death some days. You think, “Okay, I can walk 10 steps to go to the bathroom,” and then the minute you stand up, you can’t make it there. The cancer just really robs you of your humanity, but you just had to keep pushing. That’s when I would look over at those wonderful nurses and caregivers and go, “They are truly, truly angels.” Because it took teams of doctors and teams of nurses around the clock to take care of people on that lymphoma and leukemia floor.
Digest: James, how did you handle it all?
James: I had a couple of my crying moments, but they were very few and very short and very far between.
Kassie: He kept a bottle of Tito’s in the hospital refrigerator.
James: Yeah, I did keep vodka in the
Kassie (laughs): So when I was having my treatments, he was having his.
Digest: How did this journey change or strengthen your marriage?
Kassie: You know, Jimmy and I went through a lot to be together 25 years ago. When I was with him from the beginning, it always felt right, and he has always truly been my partner. When you say your vows through thick and thin, sickness and in health, you don’t think that something bad’s going to happen. Jimmy really stepped up to be an amazing human being.
James: I wasn’t before?
Kassie: Well, you were okay.
James: Okay. I didn’t have an opportunity.
Kassie: He really stepped up and showed his true colors. He’s so there 110 percent, not only for me, but for my family who was away, and our son. He just really physically carried me at times when I couldn’t get there myself. So, it definitely strengthened our marriage.
James: I would say just that we realized we’re partners. No matter what, we’re in this together. No one’s cutting and running.
Digest: Kassie, what prompted you to blog when you did about your condition?
Kassie: I was mentally and emotionally prepared. The hard part for me was I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I kept it a secret from my fans because I wanted to be able to report something positive before I put it out there in press. I had gotten the diagnosis that I would be cured, and I was going to start airing on DAYS [for a few episodes]. I needed to let people know that I would be on, but not continue on. I just wanted to put out a positive message.
Digest: What did the fan support mean to you?
Kassie: It must have been a slow political day or something, because it was picked up on a lot of social media. I was pretty shocked, but I was grateful because there are so many people that are struggling out there, and I want them to know there’s hope. My fans have been great. I know people prayed so much. I had so many beautiful tweets and Facebook acknowledgements. I was put on people’s church prayer lists, and I’m a believer, so it made a huge difference.
Digest: Your recent tweet that you had been given a good prognosis also garnered a lot of attention.
Kassie: It was random that it ended up on World Cancer Day, so when I saw that, I thought, “Well, this will be a great day to say my treatments were over and I was officially in remission.” Nobody wants a bad ending. That’s what the beauty of soap operas are. We’re all looking for the happy ending, and not every cancer story has to end on a sad note, and I hope that my story will end on a real positive note.
Digest: How are you feeling today?
Kassie: Really great! Really, really super. Every three months, I have to go back to New York and have a bone marrow biopsy, and I just got a clean bone marrow biopsy. I would like to tell you that I feel all of this is behind me, but I think once you’ve gone and had this happen, every little ache and every bump on your body, every night sweat, everything that happens you think, “Oh, my gosh, it’s back.” I’m moving forward in my life, but I can’t help looking back over my shoulder hoping it’s not chasing me.
Digest: Do you feel healthy enough to go back to work?
Kassie: Here’s how I feel about returning to daytime: Daytime has truly been my life’s blood for so long. I love my work, and it is something that kept me hopeful during my time of sickness knowing that if I got a clean bill of health, I could return to work. So, I know that unless they’re writing in a cancer story, I can’t be camera-ready with a bald head. They could slap a wig on me, but I am looking forward to working again whether it’s in daytime, nighttime, commercials, whatever. But I’m hoping that I will return to my daytime family very soon.
Digest: When you look back now, what do you think you learned about yourself or about life in general?
Kassie: I learned that I am fortunate that I was born with a very positive disposition. I’m fortunate that I was raised in a home of faith, and that I had a loving family and family of friends that are there for me because when you’re walking the halls of the hospital, you see people that are alone and lonely, and I was never alone and I was never lonely. I do believe that having a positive outlook was totally what kept me going, just knowing that I was going to beat it. I was okay if this was what God had chosen to take me out. I was okay to die, I just wasn’t ready to, that’s all.
In early December 2016, DePaiva went into the hospital with a neutropenic fever. “I was in the hospital for 10 days with strep in my blood in December, and that completely set me back because that’s the only time I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I really might die,’ ” she reveals. “I was scared, because they didn’t know what was causing the fevers, and I was delusional for five or six days until they found out that it was strep and got me on the proper antibiotic. When I got out of the hospital, on the 23rd of December, JQ had started his Christmas break and gotten a ride to our mountain house. It was really late, and I was very weak. We got up to the house and we have a barn that we converted into a giant party room. Jimmy said to me, ‘I think JQ’s up at the barn, you wanna go in and see him?’ And I’m going, ‘Oh, I’m so tired, can I just walk to the house?’ He goes, ‘Why don’t you just go up and say hello to JQ?’ I walked in and there’s Christmas music playing and I walked to the second floor, and JQ had decorated the barn. He went and bought a Christmas tree, decorated it, he cut snowflakes out of butcher paper. I sobbed. I just sobbed. That was really, really sweet. I just went, ‘Oh, my gosh, what an angel.’ ”
For more information about how you can help the fight against leukemia, go to Cornellleukemia.com. Also check out BeTheMatch.org to volunteer to be a stem cell/bone marrow donor. If you would like to donate blood or platelets — critical to leukemia patients — please contact your local blood bank or American Red Cross.