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Vanessa Pacella: Fighter to the end

Vanessa wasn't afraid to walk into a room full of strangers and let her shining bald head reflect the inset lights above. In a room full of dull bulbs and tired faces, Vanessa's eyes alone turned heads. She was the first bright thing the poker writers at the World Series of Poker had seen in a while. She was a fighter, they learned, but not the kind one usually finds in Vegas. Vanessa was battling Stage 4 cancer, a fast-running plague that had run through her body quicker than she could chase it.

Vanessa wanted to talk about two things on that summer day in 2014: cancer and poker, and she wanted to do it so fewer women like her would be standing in a room full of strangers begging to be heard. She achieved both missions: she told her story and played the WSOP Main Event.

On Monday, May 11, 2015, Vanessa Pacella died at the age of 45. It was the day after Mother's Day.


Vanessa Pacella at the 2014 WSOP (Photo by Jayne Furman)

Last July at the WSOP, we met Vanessa and her friend Nicole Rowe. Nicole was the serious poker player and cancer survivor. Vanessa was a poker enthusiast and, at the time, much sicker. Nicole wanted to make sure Vanessa sat down in a $10,000 Main Event seat, and she did just that, buying her friend a seat and a dream. Together, they brought their cancer and mammogram awareness message to one of the most unlikely places, a poker tournament dominated by men. The women's stories, Stages and the follow-up to them, Never Stop Fighting traveled far and wide in a matter of hours. Before they'd played their first hand, their missions had been accomplished.

"I loved her," Nicole said this morning. "We were soul sisters in this fight."

A one-time 9/11 first responder and a constant fighter against the attack on her own body, Vanessa's friends called her a hero with a spirit that refused to be broken. Even as she grew sicker--too tired to talk on some days--people thought she was the rock in her family, never wavering in her belief she would live. Her neighbors called her an inspiration, one who always wore a smile no matter how much she hurt. She fought long enough to give her husband and daughters one more Mother's Day before dying on Monday.

As poker writers, our plans are to be back at the WSOP this year, and we'd hoped we would see Vanessa in line on Day 1 again. Having her again in a Main Event seat would've meant a lot of things, but most of all, it would've meant she was still fighting.

Thank you, Vanessa, for taking the time to share your story with us, and thank you for showing people how to fight with grace.

is the PokerStars Head of Blogging

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