By Nikki Ross Inda - March 19, 2021
Before she retired, Valerie Romero spent years as an elementary school guidance counselor. She often helped students cope with stressful situations by offering advice.
“Life is like a pickle,” said Romero. “Some days are sweet pickle days and some days are sour pickle days.”
Romero is familiar with both kinds of days. She’s spent the last 28 years fighting cancer.
In June 1993, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her right breast. After a lumpectomy, 35 radiation treatments and chemotherapy, she thought she was in the clear. But seven years later, Romero was diagnosed with cancer in her left breast.
She underwent another lumpectomy and 30 rounds of radiation.
Romero’s cancer journey wouldn’t end there. In 2007, she experienced a recurrence that forced her to undergo a double mastectomy. She would then go on to fight thyroid cancer twice, undergoing a thyroidectomy in 2008 and again in 2012.
Romero did her best to stay optimistic. “You have to believe you are going to beat cancer. You can’t believe you’re going to die,” she said.
Romero’s most recent bout with cancer came in 2015 when she was diagnosed with stage four mantle cell lymphoma.
“I never knew anyone who survived a stage four cancer diagnosis,” admitted Romero. “Now, I push it somewhere I don't really think about it. I always have the TV or radio on. Silence is not my friend; it makes me think about dying, so I stay upbeat by keeping my mind busy.
I speak positive affirmations. It helps distract from my negative self-talk and thoughts.”
During one of her many trips to Moffitt Cancer Center, Romero took note of the masks hanging on the wall in the Radiation Department. They were going to be discarded, but instead she took some home and turned them into meaningful pieces of art.
“I jeweled the masks and they were beautiful,” shared Romero. “They hung in a local gallery and garnered media attention. I wasn’t always an artist, but it helped get my mind off cancer.”
The first mask Romero created was a tribute after her dear friend Linda passed away from the dreadful disease. Romero personally names each mask she repurposes.
Despite multiple surgeries, constant follow ups and cancer screenings, Romero is still standing. She stays active in a program called the Affirmation Project, which focuses on empowering cancer patients and domestic abuse survivors. She also enjoys spending time with a group of friends known as the Owls. They meet twice a week to play bingo and cards, and Romero has given each of them a Moffitt face mask to help protect them from COVID-19.
“I love my new group of friends! They are beautiful, wonderful people who have suffered much more than I ever can imagine,” said Romero. “Some of them have lost their children and many of them have had multiple illnesses and survived. It puts things into perspective knowing what they’ve all had to overcome.”
Romero also loves spending time with her two pups Oreo and Mini. Now that she’s been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, she was able to meet her one-year-old grandson Houston for the first time.
Though Romero continues her care at Moffitt with immunotherapy treatments, she’s been in remission since January and is hopeful for more sweet pickle days ahead.