When you think about Girls Who Powerlift, you think of strength. But that strength doesn't just mean how much you can lift. True strength comes from struggle and what happens when there's no other option. No struggle is harder than being sick and having to fight for your life. We had the immense pleasure of interviewing Valerie Valentino who is a 23-year-old cancer survivor. Just after finding her passion for powerlifting she was diagnosed and had to learn to be just as strong outside of the gym as she was inside the gym. Here's her story.
Introduce yourself to the GWPL community
Hello! I’m Valerie Valentino, I’m 23 years old and I’m a cancer-surviving powerlifter. I recently moved to North Dakota with my boyfriend because he got stationed here. He’s my boyfriend, but he’s also my coach and he’s taught me everything I know about the barbell.
When did you get into lifting and why?
I got into the gym straight out of high school. I was an athlete all through school, so after graduation, I just needed something to keep me active. When I first stepped into a gym I was intimidated and scared! I didn’t know how to use anything and I thought everyone was looking at me and knew I had no idea what hat I was doing. I started seeing people squatting, benching and deadlifting, and I was like hey, I want to learn how to do that. So I started asking people to show me. Most people showed me the wrong way, but eventually, I asked a powerlifter (Kevin, the boyfriend) and I learned the right way. I started with just the bar and slowly was able to add weight. Then something awesome started happening; I started getting stronger! What felt impossible one week, I’d be lifting the next. I fell I love with the feeling of hitting a PR. I fell in love with improving myself. And before I knew it, lifting had become one of the biggest parts of my life.
Which of the big 3 is your favorite and why?
My favorite of the lifts changes from time to time-based on whatever is feeling best for me at that time. I love deadlifting because I feel like it’s the most savage and I honestly have fun doing it. Squats I feel are more impressive and take a lot of technique in order to excel at them. Squatting takes a lot out of me so when I know I have a heavy squat day I usually make an afternoon of it. The bench is probably the lift that I’m most proud of. When I started I could hardly bench the bar and I’ve had to work very hard to get where I am today. I remember when benching a plate (135lbs) was a dream of mine, and now I can rep a plate and that just a great feeling to have.
Talk to us about when and how you were you were diagnosed with cancer?
I was diagnosed with cancer on January 16, 2018. My boyfriend was deployed and he was coming home the very next day so it wasn’t exactly how I wanted to welcome him home. So here’s how I found out; I was training for a new job and now was just standing there listening to my coworker when I touched my neck. I instantly noticed a golf ball size bump above my collar bone that I had never noticed before. I kinda panicked so this girl probably thought I was out of my mind. Well, I asked around over the next few days and people all said the same things to me. “Oh it’s just a swollen lymph node”, “oh you’re body is just fighting off an illness, it’ll go away”. Well in my 22 years of life my lymph nodes had never done this and it wasn’t going away. It would fluctuate in size and after a few months, I decided to see a doctor. I really thought it was nothing. I thought maybe they would have to remove it but nothing serious. So I got referred from doctor to doctor for a couple of months and was growing impatient with their lack of urgency. I remember saying to myself, “what if it was something serious like cancer, and they’re just taking their sweet time”, not thinking I actually had anything serious like that.
Eventually had a biopsy on it, which hurt very badly, and they told me the news. I was pretty devastated for different reasons. First off, they told me I was going to lose all of my hair. I had long beautiful brown hair and I was going to lose it all. Secondly, I had just signed up for my first powerlifting meet and I was really pumped for it. I was stubborn and I said I was going to compete anyway. I kept training only to become weaker every week. It got to the point where I couldn’t even do the main 3 lifts without hyperventilating and I eventually made the decision to back out of the meet.
At first I was aggravated by how many months it took them to diagnose me, but honestly, it was perfect timing. If they had told me any sooner I wouldn’t have had Kevin home to help me through it all. He was the one who shaved my head when I couldn’t handle the shedding anymore. He’s the one who sat by me when I was getting chemotherapy. He’s the one who cooked for me when I was so sick I could hardly speak. Things like that make me feel like everything happens for a reason because I would have hated to have faced this alone. It was hard. It was really really hard and it’s still hard at times. I felt like I was losing everything that made me feel like me. I lost my long beautiful hair. I lost my strength and I could hardly do anything at the gym. I had to watch all the strength I had trained so hard to gain, just fade away. I lost my energy and I was sick every other week. I had a lot of side effects from treatment too. I got mouth sores so bad I couldn’t eat or drink. The pain was so bad I couldn’t sleep more than 30 minutes and I’d wake up crying again. I got random skin discoloration due to hormone imbalance. I had heat flashes non stop. I was given a shot to turn off my baby maker in order to protect it so I could have kids one day. With that came menopause essentially. So on top of going through chemotherapy, I got to go through menopause as well.
I had 8 rounds of chemo, one every other Friday for 4 months. My last treatment was on June 1st, 2018. I got back to powerlifting almost immediately. It wasn’t easy and the chemo was still in my system for about 6 months after treatment was over. I was just itching to get under a bar again. Kevin wrote me out a program and I started getting my strength back, and it came back pretty fast.
Before long, I was stronger than I had ever been. I signed up for my first powerlifting meet and competed March 23, 2019. I got first place in my weight class for open and juniors and took 8 state records. Talk about a freakin come back! I will never give powerlifting up. It was always there for me even when I didn’t know it was. It's shown me how strong I really am and what my body can overcome. When I was sick And stuck in Bed for days all I could think about was lifting again. When Kevin would go to the gym I’d go with him even though he told me I needed to rest.
How did being sick and going through treatment affect your life and your training?
Having cancer and going through chemotherapy affected my life and my training tremendously. As far as training went, I really couldn’t. I couldn’t even touch a barbell after the first month of treatment. I still went to the gym and did what I could, but I just continued to get weaker. I was so anxious to be able to lift and train hard again. I had been so used to pushing myself in the gym, but for the first time, I really couldn’t do that. It was hard. It was hard losing everything that I thought made me, me. I lost all of what I believed to be my best qualities. I lost my strength, my long beautiful hair, my perfect skin, and most of my muscle. Powerlifting had become a passion of mine and I had to take a step back. The great thing about powerlifting is that as soon as I beat cancer and I was ready to train again, it was still there.
What advice would you give to someone who is dealing with a setback?
There are not many young powerlifting women going through cancer. So when I got diagnosed there were a lot of questions the doctors couldn’t answer for me. The advice I would have given myself would be that it’s ok not to be ok. It’s ok to be sick. I didn’t know the difference between being lazy and just being really sick. I tried to push myself and I was too hard on myself.
What have you learned about yourself going through this process?
I really learned how strong I am going through all of this. I learned how much I could inspire others with my story and that's exactly what I hope to continue doing. I learned that powerlifting will always be there for me to come back to, and I learned that the come back is stronger than the setback.
Has your fight with cancer affected how you live and train now? Meaning, are you more careful or mindful of things and if so, how?
Well, I definitely appreciate powerlifting more than I ever did before and I also came back more motivated than ever. I came back with a vengeance for the weights. I came back with a point to prove. I really just wanted to feel like myself again. It still tries to hold me back in the gym at times though. I have acid problems now so I have to be careful when I lift or I'll throw up ( yes, it's happened}. During chemo, I had a port in my chest and I only had one sports bar I could wear to the gym because if it, People would ask me why I always wore the same one, so they probably thought I was a weirdo. Now I have a pretty gnarly scar on my chest from my port and it still gets irritated from my sports bras and tank tops, but I just suck it up.
Do you have any specific goals in powerlifting? (i.e. totals, PRs, specific records you want to break)
Right now my goal for powerlifting is my next meet that’s in October this year. I want to break my own records I just set it March. I’d like to squat and deadlift around 350 and bench 170, so fingers crossed!
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
It’s really hard to say where I see myself in 5 years. Whenever Kevin gets stationed I’ll follow him and my job transfers easily anywhere in the country. Maybe we’ll still be here in good olé North Dakota, or maybe we’ll end up closer to our family on the East coast. I’ll probably be married with a little monster running around, and I’ll definitely be even stronger than I am today. Oh and I’ll have long pretty hair again because I’m never cutting it short again in my life. I hope Kevin and I are still competing together and pushing one another to be the bests version of ourselves possible.
(Just for funsies) What's your favorite breakfast meal?
First of all, breakfast if my favorite meal. The perfect breakfast would be a ham and cheese omelet, cinnamon French toast, 7 pieces of crispy bacon, a fruit salad and a very large iced coffee. Please and thank you.
Get to know Valerie a little bit better on Instagram