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Former WNCC volleyball player Fatima Balza talks about her battle with breast cancer

Former WNCC volleyball player Fatima Balza talks about her battle with breast cancer


Former Western Nebraska Community College volleyball player Fatima Balza is coming out to tell her story during October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She says sharing her battle with breast cancer encourages people to take the disease seriously.

What Balza is telling everyone, which is how she found out that she had breast cancer in 2020, is “Touch your breast so you don’t lose your breast!” she said.

That is exactly what Balza did in 2020 and found out that there was something abnormal.

“I never checked my breast, until one day, just by chance, I touched it and felt a lump,” Balza said. “This was the first sign for me to go to the doctor. After a few doctors and a biopsy, I got diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer with metastasis in the lymph nodes. Luckily, for me, I touched my breast.”

Balza was diagnosed with breast cancer during one of the hardest times the world was facing, the coronavirus pandemic. It also made her treatment and diagnosis harder. What helped Balza succeed was thinking about the disease like playing volleyball, where she won a national title for WNCC in 2007 and then back-to-back national titles for Penn State in 2009 and 2010.

That is why Balza has come out to share her story. With October being Breast Cancer Awareness month, and two members of the 2011 and 2012 Cougar volleyball team having or undergoing treatment, it was a perfect time to say how important it is to get tested and look for the signs, which includes self-breast exams, she said.

“Unfortunately, cancer is becoming more common every day,” she said. “Millions of patients around the world and the number keeps growing. One of the main things I would share for all women out there is about awareness, to touch their breast and be aware that it can happen to anybody. Cancer does not know the word discrimination, it does not matter the age, color of skin, language you speak. It can be anyone. The first sign to discover my cancer was when I touched myself.”

Balza, who now lives in Krakow, Poland, did all the treatments, more-or-less, hush-hush so her mom wouldn’t know what she was going through. Balza’s mom, who is back home in Balza’s native country of Venezuela, was also undergoing cancer treatments.

“Going through cancer, at first, I did not realize what was actually happening,” Balza said. “Even when I was in my first chemo, I could still not believe that I was in the oncology department having chemotherapy. For me, cancer was not only chemo; it was also surgery, radiation and hormonal therapy.”

What made going through chemotherapy more hectic was she was away from home (her family home in Venezuela and her college home of Scottsbluff) and didn’t really understand the language in Poland. She only could understand the very basic things. When she was first diagnosed, she had struggles, but she had a lot of support behind her that she relied on from her days as a Cougar at WNCC.

“The world is so big, but so small at the same time,” Balza said. “The first time I had to meet my oncologist, Jacek (Kasprzyk, her partner who works for the Polish military) could not get off from work. So, I was worried thinking how can I talk to the doctor if Jacek is not with me? Luckily for me, Paulina Piegza, who I met at WNCC and who was my teammate for a year (2008), was back in Poland and we happen to live in the same city. Well, Pauli lives a little bit outside Krakow, but not too far. Paulina went to the hospital with me to help me communicate with the doctor. It was awesome she was there for me.”

During 2020, Balza only told a few people of what was going on.

“My family in Venezuela, at first, did not know. I decided not to tell them because my mom was/is fighting cancer as well and she was also going through chemo at the same time I had mine,” she said. “My sister, Astrid Balza, lives in Germany and she was very supportive. She came to Krakow as many times as she could, but with COVID, it was not easy to come.

"Some people in the United States knew my situation, lots of them messaged including my lovely dorm parents (Jim and Brenda Trumbull) who were aware from the very beginning and they always kept me in their prayers. I was in constant communication with Amy Winters, who gave lots of support and advice. I lived in Dublin, Ireland, before moving to Krakow and my friend from the Irish volleyball community was very supportive. Jacek and his parents were an essential, an amazing support.”

Balza is one of those former WNCC players that still has many ties to the community. Balza came to Scottsbluff to play volleyball from Merida, Venezuela, and helped the Cougars to the school’s first national title in 2007 under former Cougar head coach Chris Green.

The next year, she was coached by Giovana Melo in Melo’s first year as head coach of the Cougars. After her two years at WNCC, Balza went on to win back-to-back national titles at Penn State in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, Balza returned to WNCC and was an assistant on Melo’s staff for three years from 2011-2013. After Melo left in March 2014 to become the head coach at Division I University of California-Bakersfield, Balza went over to Ireland.

Balza, in her two years at WNCC, earned plenty of accolades. She was named the freshman of the year and earned NJCAA All-American honorable mention while tallying 413 kills and 210 blocks.

As a sophomore for the Cougars in guiding the Cougars to a third-place national tournament finish, she was NJCAA First Team All-American, named female athlete of the year at WNCC, and was named the Omaha World-Herald Female College Player of the Year. She finished the season with 632 kills with a hitting percentage of .466, had 227 total blocks, set the school record in blocks with 437 career blocks, and finished with 1,045 kills.

At Penn State her junior year in 2009, she started in 37 of 38 matches and had 171 total blocks. She had nine blocks against Hawaii in the NCAA national semifinal and then led the team in blocks in the national championship game against Texas.

During her time at WNCC, she met a lot of people. When she was an assistant coach, she also coached Taylor VanderWerff, who played here on the 2011 and 2012 teams. Just as Balza was finishing up her chemo earlier this year, VanderWerff found out that she had breast cancer and is currently undergoing a very rigorous chemo treatment.

“I am aware of Taylor’s situation and my heart is with her,” Balza said. “We have spoken many times now and I fully understand what she is having to deal with. Our diagnoses are different so our treatments are different as well, but I know we both had to start with four sessions of chemo with the ‘Red Devil,’ which is a very strong chemo that shuts down your body.

“Taylor was diagnosed with cancer this year and I was diagnosed last year. But, yes, it is crazy to think that two Cougar volleyball players, in this case a coach/player from the same team are dealing with breast cancer. When we were in WNCC, I was coaching mostly the middle hitters and Taylor was one of them, so she would be one of the players I would talk/know the most. I was thinking I was young to have cancer and then I see Taylor getting diagnosed and she is even younger than me. Taylor is a great person with a very positive personality, this makes a difference when you are going to chemotherapy.”

Balza said breast cancer can affect all ages whether you are in your 20s, 30s, 50s or 60s. Balza said she took care of her body while playing volleyball and thought she was immune from cancer.

“It is very scary to find out that you have cancer and even worse to find out it is not in the early stages and has metastasized to the lymph nodes and that chemo needs to start in a few days,” Balza said.

“I had no clue what to do; I was sad. I was 31 years old when I got diagnosed. It was frustrating at first. I was angry. I was in shock. I did not know what to think. I wanted to think positive, but at the same time I did not want to lie to myself. Is this really happening to me?

"I could not understand where this cancer is coming from because usually cancer is related to specific factors, such as weight, overall health, alcohol consumption among others, but I did not fit any of the criteria. I had a genetic exam which was negative, so it could not be genetic, I always exercise, was never overweight or a smoker, and I did not drink much, only in certain occasions. The fact is that it did not matter where this cancer was coming from, my reality was that I needed to start my fight whether I wanted or not.”

“The support has been great, especially now that more people are aware,” she said. “Due to my mom’s health condition, I decided not to post anything in my social media during treatment since she is unaware of my situation. She still does not know, but soon I will go to Venezuela to tell her myself. So, I decided to make my story public and I have received a lot of great messages with amazing words of support.”

Balza’s cancer diagnosis was one of surprise. Balza said it was hard to detect by the doctors as the mammography results were inconclusive.

“One day, I was in bed watching TV, my left arm was behind my head, and just by chance I touched my left breast and felt a lump. I was like 'Huh? What is this?' I touch my right breast and I felt nothing, I put my arm down and touched my left breast again and I could not feel the lump as much,” she said. “Immediately, I booked a USG scan, but the next English-speaking doctor wasn’t available for two weeks and it was too far away, Jacek took off from work and we booked a Polish-speaking doctor for the next day since Jacek could translate. The doctor checked my breast for about 30-40 minutes. She could see and feel the lump, but she said that it was just a lump, to come back next year or in 6 months for another checkup. It did not feel right for me. I was not satisfied with that answer so, after I left the appointment I said to Jacek, I am booking a second opinion where I can speak directly to the doctor.”

It was several appointments later from second and third opinions, and four weeks later, that she found out.

“We got an appointment across town [the appointment was in 30 minutes] and we drove as fast as we could to the other side of the city, we made it late, but we made it,” she said. “The doctor read the results and confirmed that it was positive for cancer. Gave us a referral for an oncologist and wished us good luck. My first thoughts after I found out were: one, how can I tell my mom I have cancer? And two, can I have kids after chemotherapies?”

After finding out she had breast cancer, the long wait continued because of the pandemic. Balza said she was initially scheduled for 20 weeks of chemotherapy, but due to COVID, her surgery got pushed back because the capacity of the operating room was cut in half.

Balza said her doctor said that her cancer involved a combination of things which included 23 weeks of chemo, a mastectomy without reconstruction where her left breast was fully removed, 20 sessions of radiation, and hormone therapy, which she needs to keep doing for five years.

The biggest thing that she had to endure was losing her hair. At first, she was scared about losing her hair, but now that part of undergoing chemo is no big thing.

“Hair is a very stressful step. Now that I look back, it is very silly to worry about the hair and what other people might think when you are dealing with cancer. It is just silly, but, of course, I did not see it like that at the moment,” she said. “I did not want to cut my hair because when I was a child, kids at school bullied me for having a short afro hair. They called me microphone head all the time. Because of that, I grew up thinking that my afro was not good and that the hair should be always long, so for that reason I always kept my hair long and straight.”

Balza started losing her hair one week after her first chemo and brushing her hair was sad and other times it was a surprise of how easily it fell out.

“I could not even touch my hair because lots of hair would fallout,” she said. “I did not even want to wash it anymore because washing it was leaving lots of hair in my hands and between my fingers. Hair was everywhere from in the bed, the couch, the floor, everywhere. As painful as this was, I waited as long as I could before I cut it. Before my third chemo, I could not handle it anymore, hair was everywhere, my head was itchy, so I had to do it. Jacek cut my hair at home and at first, it was weird to see myself with no hair, but I felt so happy after I showered. The head was not itchy anymore and I felt like a huge weight was lifted from me.

“I wondered why was I holding on for so long? I should have cut it from the beginning. Then I had doubts if I should use wigs. Inside my heart I knew I did not want to wear wigs, but I did not know if I was ready to go bald or just with a turban (hat). My doubts were over after one day I saw on social media, which I was not using very often, one of the girls I played with in Penn State (Deja) decided to stop treatment for Alopecia and go bald, she looked so confident and happy. I loved her story and gave me the courage I needed to go bald. I used hats when it was sunny but mostly, I went bald.

"Which brings me to the second WNCC player that helped me during my treatment Nayka Benitez. I never used much make up, but as I decided to go bald, I wanted to practice a bit of make up as my make-up skills were bad! I reconnected with Nayaka, who over the phone in multiple calls showed me what to do.”

Balza said she has gone through a lot and what she has gone through is like playing volleyball at WNCC and Penn State.

“One of the main things that I learned with this experience is to put myself as priority and give more self-love,” she said. “I learned to be more present, life is about enjoying it with the people we want, the things we can take with us are the memories we create. People should not wait for cancer or any other disease to start creating valuable memories with the people they love or to start acting on the changes in life they want to make. My advice is not to wait for the perfect moment to decide to do things. The perfect moment is any day we want.”

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Mark Rein is a correspondent with the Star-Herald. Email to reach Mark.

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