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Photo by Martin Kjellberg

The Fighter – An Inspiring Interview with Nadja Casadei

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

by Filippa Grönqvist and Vera Berg / Photos by Martin Kjellberg

The athlete that added another category of sports to her seven. By winning the fight against cancer she once again proved to herself and the world what one can accomplish with a determined mind-set. Eight months have passed since her last treatment of Chemotherapy. Today, she aims to compete in the upcoming Summer Olympic Games.

We decided to meet Nadja at Bosön, a sports camp as well as her second home. She enters the cafeteria full of energy and with a big smile. After buying a quick breakfast we start the interview. She is very open when she starts telling us her story.

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Already at the age of 18, she was considered one of Sweden’s leading athletes in heptathlon. This would end abruptly on October 17th 2013. She had recently recovered from an achilles’ tendon rupture and for several months, she had been suffering from fatigue and a gastric ulcer. During her training she felt tired and lactic acid easily built up. Having done several tests at the doctor’s on the morning of the 17th, she was sitting with her boyfriend Gunnar at a café when she received the phone call that nobody wants to receive. Her doctor told her the results from the tests showed signs of lymphoma. She repeated the word “lymphoma” in disbelief. Immediately, Gunnar, her boyfriend, started googling, and the word “cancer” was the only thing she saw on his screen. Suddenly, people, cars, everything moved in slow motion, and several hours later she found herself in another café.

The first thing she did when she came home was to call her family and update her Facebook status. She wrote: “Cancer. Do you know what that is? An Achilles tendon rupture was nothing. Today I got the answer of my fatigue during summer. I got cancer in the lymph nodes. This might be my most challenging journey but my attitude is still the same: I will be back. But please, hold my hand, because this time I am afraid.” She was determined to survive, no other options were plausible. After updating her Facebook status the phone did not stop ringing. Media, friends and family wanted to know that she was well and to give her strength and faith.

…when she received the phone call that nobody wants to receive.

 

Nadja had been shaking all day following the shocking phone call. She did not stop until she had heard her dad’s calm voice and encouraging words on the phone. He said what he always says, “Everything will be all right, Nadjis. You will get through this. I promise.”

The next morning she was hospitalized. Despite the circumstances, she felt safe, as if nothing could kill her among all the doctors and nurses that were taking care of her. She dreaded the bone marrow biopsy, but it passed easier than she had expected. But the fear came, along with the unknown. Waiting for the test results was exhausting, and the first night alone in the hospital was a nightmare.

“Everything will be all right, Nadjis. You will get through this. I promise.”

 

Nadja suddenly reacts to someone passing by calling her name and the interview is paused for a moment while she and her friend chat for a little while. When they are done she continues telling us about what happened after the tests were finally done; it was one week later, and to announce the results six people in white clothes entered the room. Her first thought was “this is not good”, and her boyfriend who was sitting relaxed on the couch in the room, seemed to be thinking the same thing as he sat up straight as soon as the procession came in. The thought crossed her mind that she might actually die, but it was more of a calm realization than a shock. They told her that she had an aggressive form of cancer in both the stomach and the throat. The diagnosis of aggressive cancer was bad, but she told us that it at least was susceptible to chemotherapy.

The problem with chemotherapy, Nadja said, was that one has to become really sick before one can get better. With all her energy, Nadja was sure she would be able to exercise even during the treatment. She asked her doctor how often she would be able to exercise and they looked at her as if she was stupid. She was, however, convinced that she would be able to pull it off. Had they ever treated an elite athlete? “No, wouldn’t think so?” But as the chemotherapy started, her confidence in making it through without major difficulties was gone. She, who did not vomit, even after the most exhausting race, suddenly found herself feeling like a helpless little child. Finally she realized that she was mortal.

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Since Nadja is a person with an inquisitive mind, her blog helped her a lot during her struggle with the disease. By sharing her thoughts she could let others think for her, and could get away from being overwhelmed by a lot of thoughts at a time. Now, looking back, she sometimes gets scared. She describes the social media as a process for her to handle the overwhelming feelings and letting other people worry for her.

Nadja, who never was keen on eating pills took 13 pills for breakfast and another 18 for dinner. Just swallowing all of them took more than an hour. The workouts she had planned on doing soon became walks because her body was unable to do much more. Working out was so physically demanding that on the days that she did so had to sacrificed as she was unable to do anything but sleep afterwards. The workouts still helped her fight the cancer, both physically and mentally. She felt like a warrior.

The workouts still helped her fight the cancer, both physically and mentally. She felt like a warrior.

 

Today, she is cancer-free, but will not be declared completely cured for another five years.

Lymphoma, as Nadja described it, is a lottery. She has never been drinker or a smoker, but has lived healthily her entire life. Yet, fate picked her cells to go crazy.

Today she is still the same Nadja, but more worried. Life is uncontrollable and she is constantly aware of time, never feeling safe, knowing that what she has today might be gone by tomorrow. She says she has neither clue nor control. She knows this new feeling will stay with her, and the only way to get by is to accept it and learn how to live with it.

… the only way to get by is to accept it and learn how to live with it.

 

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She is also a lot more indecisive regarding her training. Her mind-set had always been “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and to work out until exhaustion was the best thing she could do. Today, she is scared; the things that exhaust her might actually kill her. Although she is motivated, there is an uncertainty concerning how her bodywill respondto the training. Challenges are something she always has liked and to compete in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro 2016 is the goal. The number of top athletes that have been diagnosed with lymphoma as well as suffered from an Achilles tendon rupture are scarce. Even fewer have planned on participating in the Olympic Games on top of that. Nadia, however, is about to change things.

Undoubtedly, Nadja has high ambitions and she realizes that reaching her goals will not be a piece of cake. Plan B is not a failure yet irritating, she describes. Design is something Nadja has a desire to work with in the future, and her latest project is a book. The book will be released in February and consists of a collection of her blog entries and photos created during her illness.

Today, the hospital department at Karolinska Sjukhuset fell like home to her.

 

She described the care during her illness as “fantastic”. Today, the hospital department at Karolinska Sjukhuset feels like home to her. The hospital staff was always present and saw her as Nadja instead of as just ‘another patient’, although she feels excluded since finishing her treatment. Thoughts and speculations do not get answered and she emphasizes the importance of having a knowledgeable medical person to call.

Nowadays she dedicates a lot of time inspiring others in all kinds of difficult situations to keep on fighting for their sake even though the odds might be bad. Using her blog and lectures she reaches out to these people in hope of becoming a source of inspiration. She emits light and warmth, and her winning mentality is limitless. A year ago she was diagnosed with cancer and today she is more alive than ever. The heptathlon became an octathlon.

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