Valentina D’Arrigo - The Magic of Sport: Finding Kindred Spirits Through the Darkness of Cancer

Valentina D’Arrigo, from Italy, was 39 years old when she was diagnosed with human papilloma virus (HPV)-related squamous cell carcinoma of the cervix. Her world fell apart with the diagnosis but she found the strength to carry on so that she could live for her three children.

Valentina tells how, although she could’t run during her treatment, she started with long walks with a friend, before joining the Pink Ambassadors. This group of fellow cancer patients meet to show, through running, the importance of a healthy lifestyle and prevention. And it is that, Valentina believes, that saved her in the end.

Sporty since a child

I am a sporty woman, I believe sport can help very much in life. I have always been sporty since I was a child.

I ran two marathons, in Rome and Florence, they went very well, and I was planning to run in the New York marathon.

Then the disease came. But that is the next one I will run, I hope.

My world fell apart

I started suddenly to have back pain. Like all runners, I thought it was due to physical activity. I started taking painkillers without worrying about that red flag, as I'm not an anxious person. Plus, I’d recently had a Pap (Papanicolaou) test.

However, looking back at that period, I'd had a few leaks, but nothing too worrying.

As every year, I had my gynaecologic visit in the October, and my Pap test. It was then we found my tumour: squamous cell carcinoma. I was 39 years old. My whole world fell apart, the word ‘tumour’ is so frightening.

I have three children. I slowly understood what was happening. I thought that I would have to roll up my sleeves, that I would have to live for myself and for them. They needed me, from the big one of twenty years to the little one of ten years…She was only eight when I got sick.

Nothing is easy with cancer

The first few months were all new but, before I knew it, the long battle had begun, with several rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy

I lost my hair, and it was a very bad time for me. The drugs and cortisone had already changed my appearance, but my hair…I had very long hair, I took care of it every day. My little daughter and I used to compete to see who had the longest hair.

The psychologist advised us to prepare her for the effects of the therapies, so I started cutting my hair before the chemo. She said: “Mum, I want to cut mine like you.” I didn't want her to.

In short, it was hard. Nothing is easy in the experience of cancer. You need a lot of patience and strength…but today I have a nice bob!

Feeling regenerated

It may seem redundant but my motto is: sport is life, and it has helped me through my darkest moments. During the treatment I couldn't run, of course, but with my lifelong friend, my lifelong running partner, we started walking.

We talked about other things and I walked, a lot. The adrenaline made me forget about my fear and anxiety, and I would come home feeling regenerated.

You know what? Even my oncologist was running, and then I felt he knew what I was going through and I was truly understood.

The magic of sport

In 2020, Valentina met the Pink Ambassadors, a group of women running and working out to show, together with Fondazione Veronesi, the importance of prevention and healthy lifestyle.

It has been a special experience. We are a very nice group. We talk to each other often and we try to meet when the restrictions due to the pandemic allow, as we did last summer. This experience gave a lot to all of us. Some had never run before and they jumped in all the same. Even if it was very hard at the beginning, we were all running in the end. Something clicked in them: the magic of sport, and of mutual help.

I always say that this is a wonderful experience and it may sound strange to some people. After all, we met each other because, unfortunately, we have been hit by cancer. Yet there is something special that binds us, something that struck me from the first time: We understand each other with a simple glance, without the need to explain or say something.

Prevention saved me

Unfortunately, ‘he’ has decided to make a little visit. He’s back, and I have to have a small operation. But the doctors have reassured me and I am confident. We will do what is necessary.

There's one thing I’d like to say, though. Prevention is very important; if I hadn't gone regularly for Pap tests, the situation would certainly be worse today. I've always gone to the gynaecologist and, also because I've had three children, the doctor is a bit of a friend.

I think it's important for young people in particular to understand this: prevention and check-ups should not be seen as anxiety inducing, but as an opportunity to stay well and live long. I know. Prevention saved me.

This article was adapted with kind permission from an original version, published in Italian, by Fondazione Umberto Veronesi