How a Positive Attitude Helped Ballerina Fight Cancer

By Shiwen Rong

NEW YORK—As a child, Chiara Valle would play in the mud with a white dress; she didn’t act like a princess but wanted to look like one.

She loved sports, and did gymnastics, figure skating and ballet. Then at age 10, she had a moment in ballet when she knew she wanted to dedicate her life to the art.

Trained at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City as a teenager, she was luckily hand-picked by Julie Kent herself in an audition of 200-plus to join the Washington Ballet as a trainee in 2016.

“Dancing was like a whole other world for me,” Chiara said in an interview with NTD. “My favorite part is being on stage, that’s the best feeling for me.”

After making her professional debut on the grand stage of The Kennedy Center in ballets such as “Les Sylphides” and “The Nutcracker,” Chiara’s career was on a strong, promising trajectory—until everything changed.

Chiara rehearsal
Chiara started to dance at the age of 8 and dedicated her life as a ballerina. In 2016 She was hand-picked by Julie Kent herself in an audition of 200-plus to join the Washington Ballet as a trainee. (Chiara Valle)

Upside Down

In the winter of 2017, Chiara began to experience debilitating pain in the femur of her left leg.

The doctor initially thought it was a type of benign tumor, and Chiara was recommended to go through non-invasive surgery. However, after one procedure, the pain came back. After a second surgery, the pain came back.

The family would go from doctor to doctor to get answers.
After a year’s ordeal, Chiara finally received the correct diagnosis—Ewing Sarcoma, a rare type of pediatric bone cancer—she was just 19 years old.

“It was a very difficult thing to hear, but at the same time I know in the back of mind that there was always this possibility,” said Chiara’s father, Giovanni Valle. “We both knew, at that moment, that the most important thing was just being supportive, and helping her get through it in whatever way we could.”

It wasn’t easy for Chiara to go from very active to bed-bound, but one thing she knew—she had to keep a positive attitude throughout the treatment.

“My nurses would always come in, and they would always say, ‘that smiles going to get you through treatment,'” said Chiara.

Chiara at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore
After a year’s ordeal, Chiara received the correct diagnosis of Ewing Sarcoma, a rare type of pediatric bone cancer when she was  19 years old. (Chiara Valle)

Her doctor was confident in Chiara’s recovery as well.

“[The doctor] made me really happy because he said, ‘I think the radiation approach is best for you. And I’m very, very confident in it,'” Chiara said.

She would be able to keep her dream.

Chiara received 14 rounds of chemotherapy, every two weeks for 2-5 days continuously, over 10 months, for a total of 63 days.
She also underwent 7 weeks, or 32 rounds, of radiation treatment for local control. The effects of the aggressive treatments led to dangerously low blood counts for Chiara, who received more than 50 blood and platelet transfusions. She was hospitalized as an inpatient for more than 80 days in 2018, often in isolation due to being immunocompromised.

Even though it got difficult, she kept reminding herself, “Cancer doesn’t define me.”

Sandra Valle, Chiara’s mother, remembered her heart rate dropping to as low as 35 bpm. A doctor said one would have been lying out on the floor at that point, but Chiara was still sitting in bed talking to them

“So she obviously was able to handle it,” said Sandra Valle.

Birthday Gift

Sandra says the doctors have described Chiara as a bit of a rebellious patient as she would do things she technically wasn’t supposed to but in an affectionate manner.

Chiara had to spend her 20th birthday hospitalized, but her parents took the spirited girl out for a short jet-skiing trip.

“[It]wasn’t the best idea because I had really low blood, but I had a lot of fun and it all worked out,” Chiara said.

But things like this are what helped Chiara get through the long hospitalization period.

Cancer does not define me
Chiara painted ‘Cancer does not define me’ during her treatment at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore. (Chiara Valle)

As chemotherapy went on, nausea became worse. “I was throwing up constantly, I was losing weight from no appetite, and my heart rate and pulse would drop down to concerning numbers,” Chiara said. “I had no blood counts at times, my immune system was shot, and somehow, I stayed motivated.”

Giovanni said it was hard “seeing her deteriorate, physically losing her hair, her eyebrows getting very thin.”

The physical aspect wasn’t the worst thing for Chiara. As the treatment went on, it became more of a mental game.

Towards the end of a chemotherapy session, Chiara had told her parents she didn’t know how much longer she could do this.

But then she would remind herself: “Look at where I came from, and look how far I’m coming. I have to use the experience in a positive way.”

Chiara credits her positive outlook to two things: “One, to my family, and the second thing I definitely credit also to ballet.”

“Knowing that that was something that I was able to look forward to in the future and knowing that this is a temporary bump in my road …  I will get through this,” Chiara said. “And in the end, I want to be a big comeback story and get back to ballet and be stronger.”

A Big Comeback

In November 2018, she received her last chemo and was declared no evidence of disease one month later.

“Cancer is one journey—after cancer is also a whole other journey,” she said.

Since February 2019, Chiara has been working hard every day in ballet classes, physical therapy, and Pilates strengthening.

“When I first got back to the ballet studio I wasn’t able to make it past the bar,” she said.

But seeing her journey as something empowering and in setting little goals,  she is now back on pointe. The amazing progress has motivated her even more.

Chiara recently started her own non-profit organization to help find funding for curing Ewing Sarcoma, as well as letting other cancer patients enjoy the trips that helped her going through her own treatment.

Chiara after the treatment
Chiara after the 10 months treatment she was declared no evidence of disease (Chiara Valle)

“I really wanted to use my voice. And my main goal is to make everyone a survivor,” Chiara said. “And that’s what I hope to do with Wings for Ewing Sarcoma.”

And guess what: this September she will join her classmates again, back at the Washington Ballet.