When 19-year-old professional ballerina Chiara Valle noticed nagging pain in her hip, she chalked it up to her physically demanding rehearsal and performance schedule. But doctors would discover something much more menacing. Ewing’s sarcoma, an extremely rare bone cancer, had attacked Chiara’s leg and threatened serious consequences: even amputation.
A STARTLING DIAGNOSIS
Chiara’s pain began as a lingering soreness. Hip pain wasn’t unusual for the ballerina, especially when she was practicing difficult moves or preparing for challenging roles and auditions. She was maintaining a grueling ballet regimen with the Washington Ballet Company, where she performed in “The Nutcracker” and “Romeo and Juliet,” among other productions.
Eventually though, Chiara’s pain became unbearable.
“It felt like someone was taking a knife and just stabbing me 24/7 in the leg,” she said. “One night, I crawled to the bathroom, because I couldn’t walk.”
Chiara went to her doctor and was referred to Dr. David Loeb, chief of pediatric hematology and oncology at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore. A round of diagnostic tests and biopsies confirmed that Chiara had Ewing’s sarcoma.
Ewing’s sarcoma is a very rare cancer that occurs in the bones or in the soft tissue around the bones, most often in the legs, pelvis or arms. It’s most commonly diagnosed in children and teenagers, but it can happen to anyone.
Just a decade ago, doctors treated Ewing’s sarcoma with amputation.
“She would’ve had a hip disarticulation, where the entire leg all the way up to the hip joint is removed,” Dr. Loeb said.
Of course, for Chiara, amputation would mean the end of her career and her passion for dance. Fortunately, thanks to rapid advancements in medical technology, Dr. Loeb and Chiara’s health care team could pursue other treatment solutions.
A PERSONALIZED TREATMENT PLAN
Dr. Loeb and Chiara’s health care team wanted to avoid amputation at all costs.
“You tailor the therapy that you offer not just to the characteristics of the tumor, but to the characteristics of the person,” Dr. Loeb said.
So, Dr. Loeb and his team devised a treatment plan centered on chemotherapy and radiation. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would give Chiara the best chance at remission without amputation. In all, Chiara would undergo 14 cycles of chemotherapy over seven months, accept 50 blood transfusions and receive radiation every day for six weeks.
“Their number one goal was to cure me, but their second goal was to let me live my best life when I was done with all this,” Chiara said.
Throughout her treatment, Chiara experienced the impact of innovative medical technology. Implanted ports help doctors access your bloodstream to deliver chemotherapy without inserting an IV each treatment. New transfusion techniques can isolate specific cell populations from blood to drive better, safer donor and receiver outcomes. Intelligent radiotherapy machines can help identify the exact coordinates of individual tumors down to the millimeter and destroy them using targeted beams with the precision of a knife blade.
Within a year, Chiara’s cancer was gone.
“I was declared an ED on November 16,” said Chiara. “[That means] no evidence of disease.”
CHIARA'S NEXT ACT
Now cancer free, Chiara is focused on her next step, which she plans to take in a ballet shoe. While she’s not performance-ready yet, she’s re-building her strength and will rejoin the Washington Ballet next month. Hopefully, her stage debut isn’t much farther off.
“I hope to carry my story with me to the stage,” Chiara said. “And hopefully one day, a little kid who’s battling cancer can look up to me and know they can do it, too.”
Adapted from a story originally published by CBS New York.