Anya Shah hero | City of Hope

Teen patient pursuing medical career after beating leukemia

City of Hope is committed to providing an exceptional, individualized care experience for patients, and Anya Shah is one example of someone who was treated so that today she can live without cancer. Her experience as a patient of pediatric oncologist James Miser, M.D., clinical professor in the Department of Pediatrics at City of Hope, also inspired her to become a budding scientist. She recently studied medical oncology under Sumanta Pal, M.D., clinical professor in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research and co-director of the Kidney Cancer Program at City of Hope, as part of her dream of pursuing a career in medicine. Shah has been part of City of Hope’s Patient Speakers Bureau since 2014. Here, she writes a personal memoir of her City of Hope experience.
As a rising senior in high school, I am determining my future path. In second grade, when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I responded, “President of the United States!” In second grade, I trained in Bharatanatyam dance and competitive gymnastics for over 15 hours a week. Just before entering third grade, I experienced sharp pains in my right shin while practicing vault and floor events. My coaches and parents thought it was shin splints or growing pains. After three months of continuously complaining and four Advils to get through the night, however, my parents believed it was serious.
Initially, my blood test, X-ray and CT scan all came back negative. Then, an MRI showed an abnormality. After evaluating the scan, radiologist Dr. Lalit Vora (clinical professor in the Department of Diagnostic Radiology) called pediatric oncologist Dr. Miser to consult. Dr. Miser had recently studied acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) cells in MRI scans. Although the pain in my shin could have been caused by a stress fracture, Dr. Miser noticed what looked like leukemia cells in my femur and suggested a bone marrow biopsy. Dr. Miser said that at no other time during his career had he diagnosed ALL through an MRI scan. “It was an incidental finding,” he noted.  

‘Something Was Seriously Wrong’

After eight years of normalcy, my world turned upside down in a few seconds. The gymnastics competition scheduled for the following week would go on without me. No longer could I go to school. My experience fighting ALL seemed more a marathon than a sprint. Two and a half years of a medical regimen made for a traumatizing, eye-opening experience. To cope, I danced. I continued gymnastics, despite my diseased body. Each helped to pull me through this life-or-death situation. I recognized the severity of my illness when I asked, “What about school?” and my mom responded, “Your health comes first.” When school and grades were not my parents’ No. 1 priority, I realized something was seriously wrong. 
I was unlike most any other patient. I tried calling the shots. Use Mepitac tape, not clear tape. Use the butterfly needle. Lower my anesthesia dose. The hospital became my second home, with welcoming and kind-hearted doctors and nurses, including Dr. Joseph Rosenthal, M.D., M.H.C.M., the Barron Hilton Chair in Pediatrics, and pediatric oncology nurse Debbie Toomey, P.N.P., who always attended to my needs. Dr. Miser has a manner that always puts kids at ease — particularly through his Donald Duck imitations — always smiling and cheerful.
When I asked Dr. Miser how he designed this singular pediatric oncology center, he described how the challenging and fun process began with a vision. A vision for a program entrenched in principles and values that create a warm environment. Warmth for people to work there, warmth for families to feel they belong, warmth for children to fight cancer. 

‘I Prevailed’

During treatment, I learned how Dr. Miser lived three lives: treating patients at City of Hope, visiting his family in England and leading mission trips in Taiwan. I barely managed my life between the hospital, school and gymnastics. As a whole, from beginning to end, my treatment seemed endless, an exhausting, unending process until finally I prevailed.  
Dance and gymnastics allowed me to persevere during these times. Even to this day, I still dance. Dance has always been a part of my life and I will always keep dancing. As I tie my hair back to get ready to take the stage at our national dance competition, for a moment I am back at City of Hope in the barber chair, watching chunks of my hair slowly fall to the floor. I owe my presence to the tenacity of my 8-year-old self, who kept dancing and fighting for her diseased body. I also owe my presence to Dr. Miser’s creation of the pediatric oncology center.  

‘I Am a Survivor; I Beat Cancer’

As a current member of City of Hope’s Speakers Bureau, I help raise millions in funds for research and patient care. I share how I underwent treatment until finally declaring, “I am a survivor; I beat cancer,” which became an unmatched moment. My goal is to enter the medical field, empathizing with patients by having felt their pain.  
When I volunteered at the rural Bidada Hospital in India, I grew to admire Dr. Miser’s passion for taking care of and helping children. His missionary work in Taiwan inspires me. At Bidada, I observed in an operating theater and assisted surgeons during a power outage. My reaction changed from wonderment to an understanding of the process, purpose and immediacy of surgeries.
I understood the need for global volunteerism and shared technological advancement, a topic I began researching as part of a competition sponsored by Health Occupations Students of American. My presentation, advocating for usage of 3D bioprinting technology to create human organs, earned statewide finalist recognition. I argued about how biotechnology reduces disease death rates by increasing precision, reduces donors’ waiting periods and minimizes drug testing on animals. 

My Dream of a Medical Career

I have also pursued opportunities to help me turn my dream of a medical career into an achievable goal. Last summer, I interned at the Vakoc Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor. Under my mentor Sofya Polyanskaya, I conducted an experiment testing the effect of mitotic kinases’ knockout on the survival of human acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cells, using the CRISPR-Cas9 system. I edited DNA sequences in human AML cells to determine how and why they multiply so quickly, in hopes of presenting attractive drug targets for cancer therapy.
Cancer research requires creativity, patience and persistence, and this research plays a vital role in the future of medicine and science. It saves lives. Exposure to the process of scientific research at the Vakoc Laboratory motivates me to continue exploring and learning. Working in a cancer research lab provided me with knowledge and insight into research, for which I feel beyond grateful. 

Research With Sumanta Pal, M.D.

At City of Hope, I helped carry out a research project about bladder cancer under the guidance of Sumanta Pal, M.D., clinical professor in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research. This focused on the use of Twitter by cancer patients and doctors to discuss specific categories related to their disease. These Twitter discussions provided data to determine statistical values. Specifically, we want to increase the dialogue about prevention and philanthropy related to bladder cancer in the future, as we found a scarcity of tweets in these categories. 

‘City of Hope Saves Lives’

I am grateful to City of Hope for helping me when I needed it most. They treated me like a person, not just another patient in the hospital. City of Hope saves lives. Its vital research and patient care enabled me to get well and pursue my goals. I am a current member of City of Hope’s Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program. I have been in remission for six years. I take all honors and AP classes. I serve as a crucial member of my school’s competitive dance drill team and volunteer at my temple.  

‘I Fought and Won’

I did not and will not let cancer stop me from accomplishing my goals. I will continue pursuing my passion in the medical field. I am living proof that one can be diagnosed with a negative, but end with a positive. I fought and won! I am not dwelling on my past, but instead I enjoy today, and dream about tomorrow.