Our work Real life stories Galya Bolshova: The most important thing is to keep fighting until the end GALYA BOLSHOVA Galya Bolshova from the town of Ivanovo has had leukemia twice. The first time she was diagnosed, she was a bubbly 10-year-old – top of her class, professional dancer, who also played basketball, volleyball, and chess. Her childhood dream of going to Moscow came true but the reason was her diagnosis. Galya’s doctor helped the girl every step of the way, explaining what the disease meant and how they would beat it. And they did! Unfortunately, leukemia came back when Galya was a teenager. Relapse hit her much harder, both physically and emotionally. Thankfully, by then Podari Zhizn has operated and paid for the Erwinase treatment she needed. Galya has already graduated from university and started her career as a manager. She still considers the charity and volunteers to be her second family and shares her story in our interview. Today, the charity and the volunteers aren’t just friends to me—they’re a second family, and I’m always excited to see them. I volunteer at the Winners Games every year. I try not to forget anyone, including the people working at the charity. I know that as a child you dreamt of seeing Moscow. But in the end, your first time here was because of the illness. Yes, I was 10. I was a very active child. I danced on a professional level and at the same time, without my parents knowing, I played basketball, volleyball and chess. I was a top student at school, and I found it easy to combine studying and all my hobbies. Then came the moment where I developed a fever, and was hospitalised in Ivanovo. For a long time, they didn’t tell me or my parents anything specific, but we could tell that things were bad. Finally, they gave me a green book with “Leukaemia” on the cover in big letters. I started to read, but I didn’t understand any of it. All of my treatment in Ivanovo was like a dark, endless nightmare. The Russian Children’s Clinical Hospital in Moscow had a very different atmosphere. Everything was bright and flowery, and there was no sense of gloom. It was there that I was given answers to all my questions about my illness. The doctor in charge of my case, Anastasiya Yevgenyevna Rudneva, introduced me to my chief enemy—leukaemia—and explained how we would battle it together. How did you feel when they finally explained everything to you? I finally learned my diagnosis, and I started to feel a little better. Naturally, I was scared, but it was a fear of the unknown. They told me that I’d spend a fairly long time in hospital. But at that moment, I remember now, this 10-year-old girl only had one thought: “I’ll get better. There’s no way I won’t. I have to go home no matter what—that’s where my whole life is.” And that’s what happened. I came home and everything was fine until 2008. Then I had a relapse. To many, the word “relapse” is scarier than the original diagnosis. You have to do it all again: return to the hospital, undergo treatment… It really did turn out to be scarier. I was a teenager by that point. Just as my peers were starting to bloom, I had to once again part with my hair. To say that it troubled me would be a gross understatement. I had such a thick mop of hair after my first time in a hospital. But of course, that wasn’t so important. The toughest part was the recognition that I’d have to immerse myself in treatment once again. Where at 10 I had been strong and resilient, a real fighter, during the relapse I found it much harder to keep my focus on beating the disease. And my treatment was much more intense than before. The chemotherapy left me with severe burns, anaphylactic shock and once even a mini-stroke. The treatment lasted much longer, and it was much harder to endure both mentally and physically. How did you motivate yourself? The doctor in charge, Anastasiya Yevgenyevna, motivated me. She told me, “Galya, you’re not the first, there are many people who suffer from relapses. But they get their health back after the second treatment, and you will too. The most important thing is to keep fighting until the end.” I kept telling myself that it was all only temporary, but when the tests keep coming back worse, and you feel awful, and you can’t eat because of burns in your mouth… I won’t lie, sometimes I felt like giving up. At times like those, my mother would come to my aid. And just as I’d once inspired her with confidence that I’d beat this disease, she gave me that inspiration back with interest when I was feeling bad. Thinking about the future really helped as well. I’d think, “When I get better, I’ll…” and then whatever—get married, have children, study at university, learn cross-stitching. You see, when you’re trying to deal with a severe illness, it’s very important to motivate yourself, otherwise, you might just get stuck feeling depressed. How did you find out about the charity? When I was ill the first time, Podari Zhizn didn’t exist yet, and when I went back to hospital with a relapse in 2008, it was only just starting up. I watched them bring all sorts of things into the ward, from detergents and napkins to medicines. The charity had already helped the boy next to me with medicines and with preparations for a bone marrow transplant. That’s how I learned about Podari Zhizn, and I got to know it better when I needed help myself—money to buy Erwinase. Since I spent a very long time in a hospital, I got to meet and become friends with many volunteers. Do you still have a relationship with Podari Zhizn? When I left the hospital, I wanted to forget about my illness and my treatment, and just about the whole thing. I even thought about forgetting about it for good. I thought I’d go to university and have a completely ordinary life as an ordinary teenager. But after participating in the 2011 World Children’s Winners Games, I realised that I can’t and don’t want to hide from it. It’s part of who I am. Today, the charity and the volunteers aren’t just friends to me—they’re a second family, and I’m always excited to see them. I volunteer at the Winners Games every year. I try not to forget anyone, including the people working at the charity. But we don’t get to see each other much because I rarely come to Moscow. I don’t think the illness was some kind of cruel fate. This may sound strange, but I’m actually happy that I fell ill. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have met people like them, and wouldn’t have found out that the world is so full of kindness. Were you able to return to your long-awaited ordinary life? At first, it was very hard. I kept feeling a certain hostility from around me. I could only leave home wearing a mask. I saw other people pointing at me and talking about me, and the bravest ones even asked why I looked like that. It all affected me greatly. But when I entered university, I quickly became part of the collective since I’m a very social person. And once I could walk around without a mask, that was probably when my ordinary life began. The only thing I’ll always find difficult is to understand and accept people who have a shallow outlook on life. Why is that? After all, many teenagers are fairly shallow in various ways. When I came home, I felt—and still do—like I was a 30-year-old made wise by my experiences. And all my acquaintances, by comparison, are kindergarteners. In other words, the illness fundamentally changed you? Well, that might be putting it too strongly. I was still as goal-oriented, cheerful, even sunny to an extent. But without a doubt, the illness strengthened my spirit. Not that I was a wimp before, but now I’m much stronger. There are times, of course, when I find myself getting anxious about trivial things because of work, or some conflict or other. But then I stop myself and see that it’s not something worth worrying about. The most important thing is that all my friends and loved ones are alive and in good health because now I know how priceless that is. I value my life. What would you wish the children receiving treatment right now? To banish depression, because in many ways that’s what keeps you ill. You have to support yourself from within, keep your focus on winning and tell yourself “I’m going to do this!”, even if you’re feeling really bad. Gift of Life thanks all donors and friends of the charity for the invaluable support. Together we give children and young people like Galina a better chance to beat cancer.