Sharing Hard-Fought Lessons
Dulcce Valenzuela – a sophomore biomedical engineering student at George Mason University – wants to use nanotechnology to find new therapies for cancer. For Dulcce, it’s a mission that has personal meaning. A native of Honduras, she was diagnosed at age 12 with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare type of cancerous tumor that affects bones primarily. “I wouldn’t want to go through cancer again, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” says Dulcce. “Everything I’ve accomplished and the person I am today is a product of that experience.” After months of difficult and unsuccessful treatment for her tumor in Guatemala, Dulcce and her family moved to San Antonio so that she could receive treatment at Methodist Children’s Hospital. “We have family in San Antonio, and my mom knew from her research it was a great place for me to receive treatment.” There, under the care of pediatric oncologist Dr. Jaime Estrada, Dulcce won her battle with cancer after a long and challenging treatment journey. Now a healthy 28-year-old, Dulcce says she is focused on giving back to other young cancer patients and survivors through serving as a mentor with the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Support Group, an essential part of the AYA Foundation San Antonio, an organization that Dr. Estrada founded to provide economic, educational, and psychosocial support to young cancer patients aged 15-29, and their families, who are in active treatment or post-therapy survivorship.
“I understand so well what going through treatment is all about,” says Dulcce. “I hope to meet patients wherever they are in their journey to give support and friendship.” Dulcce says the emotional and physical impact of her treatment gave insight she hopes to share with others. The initial phase of her treatment at Children’s Methodist included surgery to remove the tumor, resulting in the loss of her shoulder blade and most of the function in her right arm. “I had to teach myself to do everything with my left arm, which was challenging because my right arm was dominant,” she explains. “I can now do most everything with my left arm, though it’s still hard to write with my left hand!” After undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, a CT scan revealed more than 20 cancerous tumors in Dulcce’s lungs. “Dr. Estrada said he wanted to try a different medication – this was a last resort,” she recalls. “I was on the waiting list for the Make-A -Wish Foundation and was finally able to go on a trip to Disney World with my mom, dad, and sister. It was an unforgettable experience.” Treatment with the new chemotherapy drug resumed when Dulcce returned home, and a follow-up CT revealed that most of her lung tumors had resolved, and the remaining few were successfully resected. “At that point, at age 13, I was cancer-free. Thankfully, I’m still completely healthy and only go for annual checkups.”
Working as a health safety attendant at a local hospital, Dulcce says she often sees patients struggling emotionally and does what she can to help. “I learned coping strategies when I received counseling for a short time during my treatment,” she says. “I share these with the patients at the hospital where I work and hope to also share them with the young people I mentor through AYA.” She stresses that most of all, she wants to give young people battling cancer what she didn’t have – someone to lean on who has walked the same difficult path. “I think for most people, it’s helpful to talk and share feelings with someone who really understands.” Dulcce says she also wants others to know how cancer survivorship has helped her look at life differently. “I understand there is negativity in life, but I find I can more easily focus on the positive. You learn to value things more when you’re about to lose them,” she adds. “Life becomes a beautiful thing to be treasured.”