Valentina was only 26 years old when a cancer diagnosis turned her world upside down. She reached out to us to share her story and emphasise the importance of a large and diverse stem cell registry full of people just like you.
Valentina’s journey began with concerns about her health, notably the onset of daily fevers that kept coming around after the effects of medication wore off.
She recalls, “It all started with mild fevers that would come and go at the same time every day. I thought it might be a common cold or flu, but it persisted. On New Year’s Day, I suddenly felt dizzy while celebrating with my family. It was a turning point. A few days later, I began experiencing chest discomfort, like something pressing against my chest. Concerned, I mentioned that I’d had pneumonia when I was younger to my doctor, who eventually agreed to an X-ray.”
Valentina continues, “What followed was a series of medical investigations. Looking back, I realised I had lost nearly 15 kilos in the nine months leading to diagnosis, a symptom I hadn’t noticed due to my daily exercise routine. Severe heartburn and difficulty swallowing also troubled me, as I later discovered the mass was pressing on my oesophagus.”
The diagnosis itself was an earth-shattering moment for Valentina. It came at a time when she was just months away from her wedding, in the prime of her life, and in the best physical shape she had ever been.
Valentina reflects, “I was fit and thriving, never in a million years would I had thought it was cancer. I underwent an X-ray, expecting a routine diagnosis, but the radiologist’s serious demeanour was telling. A phone call from the hospital followed, urging me to report to the emergency room immediately. My mind went straight to cancer. My partner and father rushed me to the hospital, where the whirlwind began.”
“Diagnosis didn’t happen immediately; they said it could be non-cancerous. I was sent home but received a call within an hour confirming it was likely lymphoma,” Valentina adds. “I went back to the hospital, and the doctors broke the news. At that time, we were in the midst of one of our heaviest lockdowns, so my mother and father had to wait outside in the rain. The doctors were kind enough to speak to them outdoors after sharing the news with me. I went into a strange mode, just saying ‘yes.’ Instead of crying, I was in shock mode.”
Valentina recalls, “The doctors recommended anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication because my response to the news wasn’t what they expected.”
Valentina’s husband Vai emerged as a steadfast pillar of strength throughout her experience, offering emotional support and actively participating in her treatment journey, from daily injections to advocating for her in medical settings.
Valentina praises her husband, saying, “He was my rock during this experience. He was the only person allowed in, albeit with restrictions. It’s one thing to face such extreme lows and unexpected turns, but to do it while navigating a career and life upheaval is another challenge altogether. He stood by me, attending every appointment and midnight emergency visit. He advocated for me when I was too mentally and physically drained to manage medications, injections, and symptoms. The doctors often remarked that this experience tests relationships, but Vai gave me the strength and companionship to keep pushing.”
“He didn’t ask he just provided help,” she continues, “which I think really is what makes a difference in someone’s journey. For myself it’s never been easy to ask for help, I always gave and predicted the needs of others. This was a time when I needed people to just assist without having to ask as it wasn’t in my nature to do so.”
Navigating the pandemic
Valentina’s cancer treatment occurred against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding an extra layer of complexity. Her compromised immune system required stringent precautions. However, these precautions weren’t always met with understanding from friends and family, highlighting the challenges she faced.
Valentina shares, “Isolation had become somewhat familiar to us, as we had been living in a pandemic for two years. However, when all you want is to be comforted by your loved ones, not having that option is difficult. I had to prioritise my health because my immune system was compromised due to chemotherapy. The doctors emphasised caution, recommending that I interact only with vaccinated individuals. Unfortunately, this advice faced resistance and judgment from some family members and friends.”
She continues, “My partner and I stood united, knowing we had to follow strict safety measures. Every fever between chemotherapy cycles meant another trip to the emergency room. Due to the pandemic, I was admitted to the COVID isolation unit and treated as if I had COVID-19 while having no immune system. Nurses had to prep new PPE every time they entered my room, and my food was left at the door with disposable utensils. FaceTime became my connection to the outside world.”
Valentina reflects, “It is such a mentally exhausting thing to have to try and put up your best fight, whilst worrying about the risks of COVID and family or friends not understanding and passing judgement. But we really put one foot in front of the other, and unfortunately for the first time in my life I had to put myself first.”
Throughout her journey, Valentina turned to various coping strategies. Meditation and visualisation became essential tools for maintaining a positive outlook. She also found solace in humour and levity, using them as a means to navigate the emotional terrain of her journey.
Valentina shares, “Gratitude became a guiding light for me. I discovered a newfound appreciation for the smallest things we often take for granted. Simply being at home with loved ones and celebrating life’s smallest victories brought me immense joy. I practised meditation to manage the PTSD I developed during this journey. Nurses would often find me in emergency with a podcast playing, helping me calm my racing heart.”
She adds, “I had significant dietary restrictions due to infection risks, which limited my food choices. Despite this, I would look up and plan meals I would enjoy when I recovered. Making friends with the hospital staff, who were close to my age, provided motivation. They became my support system, and their dedication to work motivated me. I also journaled through video, which helped me express my feelings during the weeks of being in and out of hospital.”
No more long hair, for now
An unwelcome side effect of Valentina’s treatment was the loss of her hair, a profound change for someone who had always cherished her long locks. She decided to shave her head and donate her hair to charity.
Valentina opens up, saying, “My long hair had been a part of my identity for most of my life. Prior to falling ill, my hair was a source of comfort and beauty. When it began thinning rapidly due to treatment, I decided to take control. I didn’t shed a tear; instead, I asked my partner to help me shave it off. I donated three batches of hair to Variety’s Hair with Heart to create wigs for children. It just all came naturally and didn’t feel shameful. I am lucky enough to have a very selfless best friend who organised for me to get a really human hair wig, but wearing a wig felt strange. I didn’t feel like myself; it felt like I was pretending. I often went around without it, feeling more like myself.”
Valentina found herself deepening her spiritual connection during her journey, seeking solace and strength in her faith. This connection reached a significant milestone when she and her husband tied the knot in the Catholic Church.
Valentina reflects, “My perspective shifted significantly. I transitioned from being a people-pleaser to someone unapologetically prioritising myself. I’ve always been grateful, but this experience deepened my appreciation for life’s smallest joys. I now celebrate even the tiniest wins. I learned that not everyone will understand or support your journey, and that’s okay. The people who truly love you will stand by you, no matter what.”
She adds, “I found a deeper connection to spirituality, and tying the knot in the Catholic Church was a profound experience. If I could speak to my pre-treatment self, I would say, ‘This won’t be easy, but you’ll get through it. Focus on the present, celebrate every milestone, find happiness in moments, not things or people, and recognise your own strength.'”
Valentina’s message to you
Valentina is now thankfully in remission. While she responded well to chemotherapy treatment and didn’t need a stem cell transplant, she’s conscious that not every blood cancer patient has the same experience. Her message is clear: “a stem cell transplant is the last resort for people living with blood cancer, so having access to as many potential donors as possible really is a matter of life or death.”