By Tonya Stumphauzer
Today in the Bionic Body member spotlight, we are featuring someone who embodies strength, heart, passion, and courage. Someone who has every reason to come up with a good excuse as to why they don't want to work out today, but doesn't. And someone who doesn't give up, despite the odds. That person is Verena Sisa Thompson, a member of our gym who has been battling a rare form of cancer, but is showing the world that she is a fighter, and one who is willing to kick cancer in the ass, any way she knows how.
Verena grew up in Argentina, surrounded by lakes and mountains, in a town called Bariloche, which is located in the north of Patagonia by the Andes. Verena was a competitive swimmer growing up, but later fell in love with volleyball, where she was her team's captain. On the side, her and her dad (a former pro skier and car racing pilot turned avid triathlete, multisport and adventure racer) would race together.
After high school, she moved to Buenos Aires, where she says she led a more sedentary lifestyle, and even began smoking. It wasn't until she moved to New York for a job that she got back into long distance running. She spent three years there before eventually relocating to LA in 2006, where she met her British-Jamaican husband, with whom she has a son.
What events led up to your diagnosis? How did you know something was wrong?
I started suffering from bone pain. I would run, pushing the jogging stroller, and my sternum would hurt. The pain would worsen to the point that I had to stop running.
I was told first I had a bruised sternum, and was later misdiagnosed with costochondritis, an inflammation of the cartilage that connects the sternum to the ribs, and that lasts anywhere from 6 to 12 months, and sometimes becomes chronic. The pain became almost unbearable, but I lived with it because under that diagnosis, I had to pull through and hope it wouldn't turn chronic.
My son was about 15 months and I couldn't lift or bathe him anymore. Getting in and out of bed or the car was very painful. Laughing, coughing, and sneezing delivered excruciating pain. I couldn't carry my luggage on business trips, so many things that I had taken for granted, were now so hard and painful. But I adjusted and lived like that for several months.
My blood work during my physical was quite impeccable, though there was a tiny sign present in the urine: the minimum detectable amount of protein. I was still breastfeeding and as a new mom working full time, quite stressed out, so it could have been a number of things. I went back to the doctor to get retested again two months later, and to both my doctor’s surprise and mine, the protein in the urine was so high that, I was at risk for kidney failure.
From there, I was referred to a nephrologist, and they performed dozens of tests for various auto immune diseases. Unfortunately, they discovered that the protein being spilled in the urine came from my blood. Next came the hematologist-oncologist, and all of the sudden an auto immune disease didn't seem all that bad when now there was a possibility of cancer.
In looking back, the only other sign of a weakened immune system was that I started having allergic reactions that I never had before: to my cats, to dust, to grass...I blamed it on having been on maternity leave and hormonal changes. I've now become a little bit of a pain in the butt for my friends about getting their physicals. It is so important.
What was going through your head when you were diagnosed?
Without a doubt, the months leading up to my diagnosis were the hardest and most uncertain of my life. Knowing in your heart and your body that something isn't right, and yet not having answers, is excruciating.
I was also dealing with lots of other things. I lost my best friend from childhood after a 12 year battle with breast cancer, my son had an accident and split his forehead open, and I was involved in a hit an run on PCH... all during a very busy time at work that demanded very long hours and sometimes weekends. I was having a hard time keeping up with life.
Once I visited the oncologist, there were three possibilities on the table. Two were blood disorders that over time had a 1% and 10% chance of turning into cancer; the other one was multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow, that to this date is considered incurable or terminal.
I went on a business trip to Las Vegas, and unfortunately peeked into the latest blood tests that were made available through my online account. And to make things worse I did some Googling. It was devastating; because I knew right there and then I had cancer. I was by myself in this hotel room, and I felt very hopeless.
I got dressed, and headed to my meetings, and decided that I was going to do as many things that night as I could, simply because despite the pain, I could. I attended a Bruno Mars concert, I met double amputee Amy Purdy, I gambled for the first time, and I danced until 2am for the first time in I don't know how many years. I had fun. And I did it simply because I could.
Then I came home and the next day I got to hear from the doctor what I already knew. In a way, after so many months of uncertainty, there was some relief in hearing the news. I could at least get treated. I knew what was wrong. But I was afraid for my son and I didn't know how to break the news to my parents, who are in Argentina. It was a lot to process. And I needed to start chemo ASAP.
What made you first come to Bionic Body and start training with Dara?
After 7 cycles of chemo, I underwent a marrow or stem cell transplant. It knocked me out. I had tried to get as fit as I could leading up to it, training for and running a half marathon to aid in the speed of recovery. But being on a hospital bed in isolation for over 2 weeks weakened not only my immune system, but also my body.
I did 3 walks a day and they were like climbing Mt. Everest. Once my oncologist said I could rejoin the germ-filled world, I started looking for a trainer and found reviews about Dara. She seemed amazing, and she truly is. A wonderful trainer, and a genuinely caring and compassionate human being. Additionally, the philosophy and functional training that's at the basis of Bionic Body were the perfect fit for me. I love the gym. Everyone is encouraging, nice and not judgmental. The classes are challenging and everyone who is there works hard, so it's inspiring.
What were any obstacles or challenges with your health at that time that made working out or training challenging?
I felt weak overall at first. But other than that, I'd say I currently don't have limitations as to what I can do. The drugs have some side effects, and I suffer from fatigue constantly because of the chemo I'm on now. I cramp easily because of the steroids and the chemo I'm on. And the steroids also increased my appetite, messed with my sleep, and gave me stomachaches.
How did you maintain a positive outlook?
I think my son gave me the strength to think that there was only one possible outcome: to win. I desire to see him grow up too much. And my husband has been my rock. My family and friends have rewarded me in ways that I will never feel deserving. The love they showed and the things they did for me...I'll always be indebted.
I will admit though that I have my moments where I feel sad or down. Mostly when something reminds me there is no cure, or I come across some unfavorable statistic. I think that is healthy too. I'm not in denial. In fact, I try to remind myself that every day is borrowed and not to be sad about it, but to remind myself that I should live it fully and do things simply because I can.
Staying active has also lifted me up. I firmly believe that staying physically active has helped me mentally in incredible ways. I've also become a much more spiritual person. I did a lot of my thinking, praying and even crying in church. I find tons of solace there. Lastly, when you are faced with your own mortality, the alternative isn't a good one. So, all you can do is fight like your life depends on it, because it does. You can't sit by the sidelines and lick your wounds.
Tell me about the sprint triathlons and half marathons?
I joined LA Tri Club when I moved to LA and realized I was quite good in the sprint distance. My very best performance was coming #2 overall in the LA Triathlon. Then came trying to have a baby and I stopped for a few years.
Earlier this year, and after my transplant and a couple of months of training with Dara, I registered for the Redondo Beach triathlon on a whim (in the spirit of doing things because I can). I signed up on a Thursday. The race was that Sunday.
Unbelievably, I took first place in my division. It was the kind of thing that is not supposed to happen, but does. The best part was that my son was there to cheer me on and see me do it. After so many months of telling him, "mommy can't (lift you, bathe you, carry you…)," I wanted him to see that mommy could.
What was the biggest source of strength you had while you were/or are going through treatment?
Without a doubt, my family and friends. My husband and son have helped me through thick and thin. My family in Argentina has been incredible, and my parents have visited as needed to help us. My friends have been unbelievably generous, loving and supportive. And being faithful...just believing, brought a lot of hope and solace to me.
When did you find out you were in remission? What does this mean for your future?
A few months after my transplant. I received the news with happiness, but also with a bit of trepidation, because while amazing, it doesn't guarantee anything. Multiple myeloma is incurable to date, and if you look at the national statistics, only 45% of people diagnosed make it to year 5. Every month I get tested, I get a bit anxious and scared about relapsing, and every new pain I feel makes me wonder.
But, I'm determined to beat the odds, after all, this cancer typically affects people over 50 and mostly men...and I was diagnosed at 36. So, that falls out of the statistics and I hope the outcome does too.
What do you want people to know who might be struggling with some kind of health issue, be it physical or mental?
First, believe. Believe that you are stronger than you think, both mentally and physically. I used to tell myself that I should feel flattered, because if God thought I could handle this, it was because He thought I could rise to the challenge.
Second, be diligent about your own health. Find a doctor you are comfortable with trusting your life to and work with him/her.
Third, don't Google. Ask your doctor about everything you want to know instead. The first bit of online research I did gave me a prognosis of 16 months. I've never Googled anything about my disease again.
Fourth, rely on your loved ones. They will inject oxygen when you feel suffocated and overwhelmed.
Fifth, allow yourself to have your moments where you can let it all out. Cry, be sad...but then pick yourself up again and face the world as if it was inevitable for you to come out a winner.
Sixth, if you are a spiritual or religious person, ask the universe or pray. This illness brought me closer to God, and it has been very comforting.
Seventh, remember that the alternative isn't all that great, so you are better off fighting whatever your "monster" is.
Eighth, stay as active as you physically can. Even if you have some restrictions, find something that you CAN do and just do it. Start with achievable steps and build from there. The payoff will be not just in physical strength, but also mental and emotional. Every time I finish a long run I feel like "I've got this," and that carries me to when I come face to face with cancer and my fears.
What, if anything, have you learned or gained from your experience?
I discovered things about myself and those around me. And I continue to learn every day. I try daily to be more about "stopping and smelling the roses," being present, empathetic, patient, and not sweating the unimportant stuff. I fail very often, but I try hard. I do things more of the spur of the moment, just because I can. And if one day I feel like not running or like not doing something, I remind myself that today I can, but that there was I time when I couldn't. So I need to seize the day. That gets me going pretty quickly.