By Romina Monaco
“My name is not Cancer – it’s Sandra”, this courageous woman emphatically tells the world. Why the strong message? Alessandra Piccolo, who has defied the odds by freeing herself from cancer’s unyielding grasp, wants to make it clear to those affected that the disease does not define one’s self.
“People get lost in the disease. I have seen it happen time and time again. As a person living with cancer you can’t forget that you have an identity separate from your illness”, she poignantly points out.
Sandra can personally attest to this. A three-time cancer survivor who has spent over a decade battling Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Sandra now deals with congestive heart failure caused by the numerous chemotherapy treatments required to combat her illness.
“I received chemotherapy as well as a stem cell transplant. There was a period where my hair had fallen out and my body had become so swollen by the steroid procedure that was used. I would glance in the mirror and I couldn’t recognize myself anymore”, she reflects.
Initially diagnosed at the age of thirty-six, Sandra’s condition came as a shock to her family. Tragically, her father Francesco had succumbed to lung cancer years earlier and her mother and brother were not prepared to lose yet another loved one. Head-strong, tenacious and brave, Sandra was not going to go without a fight. With the proper treatment she overcame the disease, if not only for a brief period. Unfortunately the cancer resurfaced, showing its ugly face a few years later in 2002. She again battled and survived another bout in 2006 and albeit the chronic heart failure, Sandra is now cancer-free.
“You are given a clean bill but the disease is always with you. It can return at any moment. This is the reason why I don’t waste my time anymore with nonsense. I also believe that I am here for a reason – to pay it forward”, she states.
Sandra not only views her victory over cancer as a gift but also as a means of helping others. She has been able to transcend her energy – morphing her previous adversities - into a life purpose as well as a moral obligation to society. Equipped with years of experience, knowledge as well as a spirit of compassion she has recently launched her website, I Am Fabulous Me. She hopes that this initiative, a project dear to her heart, will be utilized by those affected by cancer as a platform to share experiences, give and receive support as well as seek advice.
“I want to be a mentor for those facing the biggest challenge of their life. I want to assist, nurture and offer them the support they so desperately need”, she states.
As a member of Hospice Vaughan, recognizing the spiritual needs of the community is not anything new to Sandra. Her role within this organization, which devotes itself to the dying and those affected by death, as well as her philanthropic spirit and personal experiences have been a conduit for her community involvement. She was recently awarded the Relay for Life Honorary Survivor Chair New Vaughan for 2013. This twelve hour non-competitive overnight fundraising event raises much needed funds for the Canadian Cancer Society.
According to Sandra overall optimal health does not only consist of a healthy physical frame but also involves a positive state of mind. Along with the combined therapy and care given, she believes that those undergoing cancer treatment require a specific emotional support-system that is difficult for family, friends and the medical profession to provide.
“Although those closest to me, including my doctor, were extremely supportive, I always wished I had someone I could talk to that had gone through a similar experience”, she says. “That’s how I came up with the idea for Fabulous Me”
Irrespective of age or gender, Sandra’s Fabulous Me is open to all people affected by cancer – those currently diagnosed and undergoing treatment as well as survivors. It serves as a medium for the exchange thoughts and where people can both communicate and face their fears without being the subject of pity. Besides offering this forum along with one-on-one interaction, she also plans to include seminars and workshops in the Fabulous Me repertory. Sandra also encourages cancer survivors to utilize the website as a platform to tell their stories in hopes that they can inspire others.
“They should be advocates for others so that they can give them hope”, she says remembering a time when she craved this encouragement and comfort by someone who could relate to her situation. She also recalls the emotional turmoil she had faced during that long period of her life. “When you are faced with something unexpected like this you realize life is not a fairy tale. All the hopes and dreams you had as a child are different now”.
However, doesn’t Sandra’s life echo that of a fairy tale? Like the miller’s daughter in the Grimm tale, Sandra too, through her sheer passion and determination, has learned to spin the undesirable into gold.