The doctors weren’t worried when Valarie Iosue’s husband, Mark, began complaining about acid reflux and heartburn. Instead, they prescribed antacids, as they often do with people who suffer from acid reflux. Mark did what they said and continued with his life with Valarie and their four children. Valarie is from the Northeast and is a graduate of St. Hubert’s Class of 1999.
“He just kind of thought that was something he had to deal with,” Valarie said. “The doctor never mentioned that that could lead to a serious condition.”
Mark suffered from acid reflux for many years, just assuming it was a part of his life. That was until Mark began to experience extreme chest pain. After the pain became almost unbearable, he went to the doctor to get checked out, and an endoscopy was recommended.
But before the endoscopy could even take place, Valarie had to rush Mark to the emergency room because of the extreme pain and the fact that he had lost 20 pounds in two weeks. After a CAT scan, the doctors discovered that Mark was riddled with cancer that started in his esophagus and was now in his stomach, liver, and lymph nodes. Diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer, Mark immediately began treatment, and it changed Valarie’s life instantly.
“Most people don’t know that acid reflux can lead to esophageal cancer,” Valarie said. “So what they recommend, if you look up the facts about it, is if you have chronic acid reflux more than a couple of days a week for four to six weeks, you should go talk to your doctor.”
Valarie became Mark’s caretaker while he went through brutal chemotherapy treatments and immunotherapy.
“With immunotherapy, it either works really well, or it doesn’t work at all,” Valarie said. “It just was not working for him.
Tragically, Mark passed away after a nine-month battle at a hospice in 2019. This was the beginning of Valarie’s journey of awareness, advocacy, and addressing grief and trauma. Remarkably, while dealing with the grief and trauma of losing her husband, she ensured her children healthily dealt with their grief.
Her four children went to a bereavement camp, where the lives of loved ones are celebrated by making boats out of milk cartons and writing the person’s name, and attaching pictures and other sentimental items. Then, they sail them off into the lake, a bittersweet moment.
As for Valarie’s healing process, she turned to do what she has always loved: dancing. She went to her children’s dance teacher, Sandra Fortuna, who has a background in ballet, and asked if she could dance for her.
“Look, I have not danced in 21 years,” Iosue said. “But I need to dance because I need to keep moving … I feel like this is the only way I can grieve is to express myself through dance.”
They put together a choreographed dance, and she performed it twice. She had her kids in it because the dance was about her husband and their marriage.
Iosue’s misfortune didn’t end there, though. In March, she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. After finding a lump on her breast, her doctor sent her for a mammogram and biopsy. After she lived through her husband’s illness, she wanted to be thorough when it came to this.
Because of what she experienced with her husband’s illness, she insisted the doctors order her an MRI, which ultimately showed that she had breast cancer.
She also had genetic testing done and learned that she has an ATM gene mutation, which causes many cancers.
As of right now, insurance doesn’t cover mammograms if you’re under 40 unless there is a problem and a doctor orders one. Iosue would like to see the age lowered to 30 because having one in her 30s saved her life.
“If I had a mammogram when I was 40, I might not even be alive,” Iosue said. “Who knows how far it would have spread.”
Iosue had to undergo a double mastectomy and reconstruction at the same time. “When they said the word mastectomy to me, I thought I was gonna pass out,” Iosue said. “I didn’t even know reconstruction was an option.”
Twenty-four rounds of radiation later, she had her fallopian tubes and ovaries removed. Because her type of cancer was essentially fueled by estrogen, removing those organs is the best way to keep her cancer-free.
At each round of radiation, she would bring props such as a Wonder Woman costume, and at her last treatment, she wore brilliantly colored butterfly wings. She tried to keep her spirit up because, to her, her mindset was the key to healing.
“I know for a fact that my mindset is what got me through that,” Iosue said.
Iosue has a podcast called Dancing in the Rain with Valarie, spreading awareness and providing education about breast cancer. She stresses the importance of self-breast exams and genetic testing. She also talks about trauma and grief and how she addressed those issues in her life, hoping to help and inspire others.
“The grief never leaves; it’s always there for the rest of your life,” Iosue said. “You’re a different person, but it doesn’t have to define you for the rest of your life.”
Dancing in the Rain with Valarie is available on all podcast platforms. ••