The Power of 10 feature is a collection of inspiring stories about our donors, volunteers, staff members, doctors and, of course, our patients over the 10 years of Gift of Life’s successful operation.
In this anniversary year, we are delighted to share these stories with you and to tell you how even the smallest donation can increase tenfold when we work together. That’s how it was for the heroine of our story, Zhenya Vaneeva. Having received Zhenya returned to the Podari Zhizn Foundation to help others.
Zhenya, you finished treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2008. Can you tell us about the most important or memorable things that happened in the years following your recovery?
Yes, when I think that 12 years have passed – almost half my life – it’s a weird feeling. I’m joking, of course! I’d love to share some of the amazing things that have happened with you:
While I was still studying at university (Zhenya is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism at the Lomonosov Moscow State University) I met my boyfriend, who’s wonderful. Even when he heard my story, Vovka (Vladimir) didn’t run away. He was really supportive back then, and he still is now. What I like most of all is that he’s always up for an adventure. Over the last few years, we’ve found we really love taking road trips. We’ve already been round the whole of Crimea with our tent, and last year we went mountain climbing in Karbadino-Balkaria. This summer we’re planning a couple of trips to the Russian Far East and to Altai. We’re getting really to know our country!
We’ve also acquired a 4-legged friend, Fedya. My mother affectionately refers to him as her grandson! His past is rather complicated…we’re the third owners that he’s had. Fedya had it all, he was bad-tempered and had loads of sore patches. But after 4 or so years together, we’ve been able to sort all these problems and others too. He’s our anti-stress dog. When you get home after a bad day, he’s always so happy to see you that all your problems just fly away!
Zhenya and Fedya
I’ve also become an aunt twice over, thanks to my sister and her husband. It’s so interesting to see their two little ones growing. On my last birthday, they wanted to get me lots of make-up and a doll!
I suppose the question that was and is still the most complicated for me is “What have I achieved in this time? Have I wasted it?” Maybe it’s because I’m reaching my thirtieth birthday and it’s a turning point. For me, it’s the kind of question people ask if they’re keen to grow and develop. So, I’ve decided to develop my skills as a cinematographer. For me, this work’s really satisfying. The first time I met the guys from my volunteer video group, they hadn’t expected me to be able to talk so easily about photographic and video equipment or approaches to shooting footage or creating a montage. They were surprised to meet a girl who’s interested in that stuff. Their reaction really made me laugh!
When a child is ill, it affects the whole family. How did your parents cope with the ordeal, and how did they get used to the idea that the illness was behind you and you’d got better?
Once I’d got better, I wanted to get back to all the things I’d done before I was ill: snowboarding, swimming, hanging out with my friends. But my parents’ worries about my health – especially my mum’s – were stopping me going back to the full life that I’d had before. We had to have a serious talk about it. I told them that I’d been ill, but I wasn’t any more – I was better! And I asked them to treat me like any healthy person. It was thanks to their courage that they accepted what I said and stopped wrapping me up in cotton wool. First, my dad took me to the ski slope and helped me to get back on the snowboard; and mum was relaxed about letting me leave Kaluga and move to Moscow for my studies.
Zhenya’s mum and dad
Have your feelings towards what you went through changed in the last 10 years? Previously you’ve said that your illness changed your value system: these days, family, friends and life itself come first for you.
The events of the past year – the pandemic – have made me even more sure that there’s nothing more precious than family and loved ones. So, I try to spend as much time with them as possible.
Over the years, I’ve started to feel less stressed when I think back to my treatment, and I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself. I see the fact that I had cancer as a part of my life. It happened, it’s been dealt with, now it’s time to move on.
I’ve stopped thinking of myself as one of the heroes who’ve overcome cancer. After all, it’s not like I did it alone. It was a real team effort – beating my illness involved the combined efforts of doctors, my family, and all the charity’s volunteers and supporters. The funding for my treatment, the half million roubles, was raised because ordinary people donated 50, 100 or 500 roubles.
Now I’m working for the charity, I see almost every day how the large sums of money raised to help seriously ill children are made up mostly of small donations. But it all adds up and helps to increase donations tenfold! You don’t need vast riches to help, just the desire to do it.
Having received the foundation’s support, you decided in turn to use your own professional skills to support its work. Which of the foundation’s projects in particular stand out for you?
I’ve worked for the foundation for four-and-a-half years. Initially I worked in the press office, but after 6 months I realised I wanted to get involved in creating video content. I became the supervisor of a group of volunteers making videos. I remember my first independent project really well; it was around the 8th of March (International Women’s Day). The idea was simple: to create a beauty festival for some of the teenage girls. You see, treatment for cancer changes your appearance a lot, and I really wanted the young girls to see that they were beautiful. I found a stylist with a fashionable clothing range, a hair stylist and a make-up artist. The charity’s photographer was really happy to support the idea and the festival went ahead.
I also remember the ‘Blood Family’ project really well. We visited our patients all over Russia, recording the incredible stories of their battles with cancer and the hunt for bone marrow donors. We were complete strangers to them, but they opened up to us, so others would understand the importance and the value of bone marrow donation.
You often visit hospitals and spend time with children and their parents. Not all the children will recover from their illnesses, and some people find that hard to cope with. How do you handle it, and how to you protect yourself from emotional burnout?
We make videos about the children’s stories several times a month. I always thought my own experience of having treatment would help me to cope with even the worst situations when I was with the charity’s patients. I also know that even at critical moments doctors will do all they can to save a child. Sometimes, though, I try to hide myself from it all behind the camera. There have even been times when I’ve been in tears once filming is over.
The first time I heard that a child we’d filmed for a targeted fundraising campaign had died, I had only one question in my mind: “How is that possible? Only a little while ago he was running about, jumping and smiling”. But that evening, after work had finished for the day, I felt overwhelmed, and my voice was shaking when I told my boyfriend about it. But then he said just the right thing: he told me we were doing everything we could for these children, and by making my films I was helping them to get better treatment. And it’s that certainty, that I’m helping regardless of the outcome, which helps me to come to terms with the fact that not all the children will win the battle with their illness.
Fortunately, there are more good news stories than bad ones. In 2019, you flew to London for a gala evening and did a video report about , one of the charity’s former patients. Masha had always dreamt of meeting her donor, and that’s what happened at the gala. What did you dream of doing after your treatment?
During my treatment, all I dreamt of was going home. It was hard, as my home was only an hour-and-a-half away by car. I was discharged from hospital just before New Year’s Eve. Once I got home, there was the most amazing surprise: my dad and my sister had decorated my room! They had changed everything: wallpaper, furniture and curtains. It was great, and I was so happy to be back home, knowing I wouldn’t have to be hooked up to a drip the next day.
And what do you dream of doing now?
Now, I’d like to travel as much as possible around Russia and make a film about my travels. For now, my films will be just for myself and my family but one day maybe I’ll pluck up courage to start my own YouTube channel. Time will tell.
Zhenya and Vladimir
Your dad helped you a lot while you were having treatment. He told you to take things one step at a time, however hard things were. You followed his advice, and everything worked out for you. What do you say to children and teenagers in clinics, who are right at the start of the process?
I don’t usually tell the children or their parents that I’ve been ill myself. But if I want to encourage someone, I smile and say, “I’ve had cancer too, you know. It was a long time ago – 12 years. I had stage 4 cancer and I know how hard it is to go through the treatment and chemo. But look, I got better in spite of all that. I’m here today and I’m healthy. It’ll all work out for you, you’ve got to believe it. Don’t give up!”
Now let’s imagine that you’re in front of the camera and you’re speaking live to the foundation’s supporters and volunteers. What would you say?
I’d say thank you! Any donation, even the smallest, can help a child. By giving someone the chance to go on living, to dream and build a future, you’re doing something amazing. Thank you so much. And whatever happens, please keep up the good work!
To support our work and help children and young people like Zhenya to beat cancer, please donate now.
Text translated by Louisa King.