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Fashionably fighting back

Jayna Smith, Assistant News Editor - February 27, 2013

Bianca Ballardo’s high school graduation was the day before she was diagnosed with a form of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Rather than focusing on the bruises on her body, the enlarged lymph node on her neck, or her excessive itching, she contemplated what she would wear.

She picked out the perfect form-fitting, turquoise and black dress, the back elegantly cut out, to wear for graduation. She even had her makeup professionally done at MAC.

Ballardo recalls staring into the mirror when the makeup artist finished, noticing how yellow her skin was, instead of her typical complexion, a honey-tan mocha. At that moment, she noticed how ill she felt and, more importantly to her, how ill she looked.

What Ballardo says should have been one of the happiest days of her life would mark the day before her life took a dramatic turn. Ballardo would never wear the dress she originally picked out; instead she would wear a loose-fitting black summer dress, which at the time was more comfortable. But that black dress revealed the bruises and much of the scarring from her scratching.

It was her mother, Criselda Davilla, who first noticed the dark bruises on her legs.

“Is someone beating you?” she asked. Bianca assured her mother that she wasn’t being beaten. She had previously seen a doctor who told her she was bruising so easily because she was anemic.

For the past six months, Ballardo had endured itching frenzies that left her body covered in scars from scratching. She has three scars on her right arm from peeling her skin and scratching with knives.

“When I say I felt crazy, I could not control anything on my body,” Ballardo said. “I was literally going crazy.”

She itched throughout her high school graduation, and during the three-hour car ride to the Tri-Cities, Ballardo’s family noticed how serious her symptoms were.

“I remember having to put my legs up and out of the window, and my arms, to let the wind hit them because I needed something to distract me,” Ballardo said.

That night, she would get enough relief to fall asleep, only to be awakened at about 7:30 a.m. to another round of intense itching and sweating. Her attempt to take a shower was the last straw; the water burned her body, and she realized she needed to see a doctor.

Ballardo was taken to the emergency room at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, where she was greeted by a doctor who looked to be in his mid-30s. He towered over her as she sat on the examination table. He questioned her about her bruises and the large lymph node on her neck.

The doctor said he would need more tests, then left the room. While she waited, Bianca chatted with her best friend at the time, Alex, over MySpace.

After about five hours undergoing numerous tests, the doctor re-entered the room. His demeanor never changed as he stood holding her test results, he looked at Bianca and said, “You have a form of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.”

Bianca replied, “What does that mean? I don’t know what that means.”

Shifting his weight, he said, “You have a form of cancer.”

Bianca, still confused, asked, “I have a form of cancer? Or I have cancer?”

The doctor blankly replied, “You have cancer.”

As the words left his mouth, a chilling cry filled the room, but it wasn’t Ballardo’s, it was her mother’s.

Instead of reacting, Ballardo sat, detached from her emotions, and for a moment, reality.

“I felt dead inside,” Ballardo said.

Her mother called her father, Hector Ballardo, telling him everything the doctor had just told them. Her father then asked to speak to Bianca.

“It’s going to be okay mija,” he told her. Bianca solemnly replied, “OK.”

“We’re going to beat this,” he said, but Bianca didn’t respond. “We’ll meet you at the hospital tomorrow.”

Bianca’s disengaged demeanor was not temporary; she would maintain that mood throughout chemo and radiation therapy.

Still hysterical, Bianca’s mother called everyone she could. Bianca’s reaction was the opposite; she only told Alex. She came to the hospital and stood next to Bianca and held her hand, but they never discussed cancer.

“Are you hungry? Let’s go get something to eat,” Alex said.

“Ok, but I want a burrito,” Bianca replied. So they went to a gas station they frequented for lunch.

The long road ahead of Bianca began bright and early the next morning, with a three-hour drive from the Tri-Cities to Seattle Children’s Hospital.

There, she learned she would have an extensive level of treatment because of the size of her tumors. She sat on the examination table as the doctor explained what the next six months of her life would entail.

Ballardo recalls looking out into the hall as a young girl no older than 10 walked down the hall. She wore a headpiece that slightly covered her head, but made it obvious that underneath she was bald. Staring out at her, Ballardo asked the doctor, “Is that what’s going to happen to me? Am I going to be bald?”

The doctor replied, “Yes.”

The Fourth of July weekend marked the day of Ballardo’s first chemotherapy. No amount of information prepared Ballardo for what she would undergo; she would have between 5-7 forms of chemo administered every week, five days in-patient and then outpatient the next week.

This would be the tedious pattern for the next three months. Throughout the painful procedures and the weakening chemo therapy, Ballardo never allowed herself to face what was going on. After about her third week of chemo, while taking a shower, Ballardo was startled to discover her hair falling out.

“The water was so heavy, that I just felt hair falling off of me, and every time I touched my head, my hair would fall out,” Ballardo says. It prompted a panic attack.

Her friend Nelly took her to the barber shop to get it cut. Ballardo’s left side was losing hair faster than the right side, so she shaved the left side and left more hair on the right.

“It looked fashionable,” she recalled.

Ballardo says she thinks her new haircut was the moment her cancer became real to her father. He couldn’t stand to see her that way, so he took her outside and cut off all her hair.

Then he offered to shave his and her brothers’ heads bald for her. Ballardo would not have it. Instead, she told him she didn’t need them embarrassing her.

Through the midst of her fight, Ballardo says her brothers were her incentive to hang on.

“The idea of dying and my brother’s not having their sister, that’s when I really stopped to think about how I was literally fighting for my life every day, and that there was a possibility that I wasn’t going to make it,” Ballardo said. “I refused the thought of leaving them. I can honestly say that they were my motivation to not give up.”

Ballardo had to focus on beating cancer and not allow it to get the best of her. She says cancer stripped her of her identity and made her unsure of who she was. After her disease was in remission, it was her father’s tough love which influenced her to move out.

“My dad was just trying to get me to live a normal life again,” Ballardo said.
Ballardo eventually decided she wanted to go back to school and pursue her dream of being a fashion stylist.

It was Trinera Carter, a senior at Central, and a high school friend, who would give her the extra push she needed to start at Central in January 2012.

“She basically is one of the main reasons why I’m here today, because even though I was very scared of the unknown, she made me feel like it was going to be okay.”
When Ballardo thinks about where she wants to be in the next five years, her dimples indent her cheeks, accentuating a modest smile. She pulls her long, black hair back off her forehead.

“I see myself in New York City, working for [Harper’s] Bazaar magazine as a fashion stylist,” she says. It wasn’t long ago, however, that her outlook on her future was clouded by the haze of chemo and radiation therapy.

Ballardo speaks of the many people who helped her, but those people see her as a blessing. One of her close friends at Central, Carolina Perez, wasn’t there through Ballardo’s fight with cancer, but says Ballardo’s drive and motivation is very inspiring.

“She’s been through so much and she is still very humble,” Perez said.

Ballardo never let her illness steal her sense of humor, Perez says. When they are together they are always laughing. Lisette Roman, Ballardo’s cousin, 25, says even though Bianca is only 21, she’s wise and doesn’t have a problem telling people what they need to hear.

“If I want to hear the truth, and I want good advice I can go to her,” Roman said. “Cancer is something that happened to her, and she survived it because God wants to use her.”

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