In January 2023, Danica Di Giovanni was diagnosed with a rare form of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma — six months after her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer
Danica Di Giovanni and her mom, Marilena, have always had a close relationship.
Growing up, Danica, 22, tells PEOPLE the two of them would go on shopping sprees together in Seattle, Washington, close to the Canadian boarder where they live. "Both of us love shopping," Danica, a nail technician, says.
The mother-daughter pair have always shared a special bond, but after going through simultaneous cancer journeys they are closer than ever.
In January 2023, Danica was diagnosed with a rare form of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Prior to Danica receiving her prognosis, her mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2021.
Throughout Danica's cancer treatment, her mom shared the tips she learned from going through similar treatments herself.
"I knew the pain she was feeling," says Marilena, 51. "And I knew I needed to support her through all of it."
'My back pain was so bad I had to stop working'
Danica first started experiencing symptoms in October 2022. At first, she thought it was because she was working over 13 hours a day. But when she began experiencing night sweats and a constant bad cough she became concerned.
"Whenever I mentioned it to doctors they told me it was just anxiety. I was dismissed for my age," she says.
In December, Danica's back pain got so bad that she had to stop working. "It wasn’t until January 13th when my mom told me to go to the emergency room and ask the doctors to get an X-ray to make sure I was okay," she says.
"At the ER I kept on asking for an X-ray, explaining to the doctors that the same morning I lost feeling in my left arm," she adds. It wasn’t until she refused to leave the hospital that the doctor finally gave in and said he’d give her an X-ray of her back and chest for peace of mind.
After a couple of hours the doctor called Danica, who was alone, into his office and showed her an X-ray of her chest.
"He told me it didn't look good," she remembers the doctor saying. "It really looks like cancer."
Following the ER visit, she got a biopsy and a CT scan. Two weeks later she was diagnosed with a rare form of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. At the time of the diagnosis, doctors found a 12-cm mass in her chest.
'I was scared to tell my mom'
Before receiving her official diagnosis, the first thing on Danica's mind was how to tell her mom, who less than 18 months earlier had been diagnosed with cancer herself. Danica recalls sitting with her mom in October 2021 watching her receive her final dose of chemotherapy.
"I told my dad first," Danica says. "I was like this is what happened and the doctors told me that this possibly is cancer and I don't know how to tell mom."
When her dad told her mom she just started crying. Even though Danica didn't have an official diagnosis yet she says her mom had a gut feeling it was cancer.
"It was just kind of a shock for my family," Danica says. "But she said whatever happens we're going to pray that God is going to help us through this and that's exactly what happened."
By March, when she began her chemotherapy, the tumor had grown to 15-cm. She was in such pain that her dad, Paolo had to lift her out of bed and help her walk. “It hurt to talk,” Danica recalls.
As doctors laid out her treatment plan, which included six rounds of intensive in-patient chemo, her fear grew as well: “I thought, ‘What’s the next year going to look like? Am I going to be like my mom? Am I going to be in the hospital every single day fighting for my life, in pain?’”
'She told me to eat ice cream'
Throughout her treatment Danica says her mom and her grew closer as Marilena shared advice on how to cope with the treatments. For instance, she says her mom told her to eat ice cream to help the cold sores on her mouth that would appear from the chemotherapy.
"It hurt to eat sometimes, so she told me to have ice cream," Danica says. "She told me ice cream helped her the most. She also would tell me that putting a pillow under my knees would help me feel better."
Marilena also sat with Danica during her chemotherapy sessions, rubbing her legs and holding her hand.
“I knew what was going to help and how to be there for her,” Marilena says. “I understood from my own experience.”
After her mom left for the night, they’d FaceTime until Danica fell asleep, keeping close the Tiffany’s heart pendant necklace her mother had given her.
'Closer because of it'
Now on the other side of treatment, Danica and Marilena both say their relationship has never been stronger. In September, Danica learned she’s officially cancer-free— news she had to deliver to her mom in the hospital, where she had undergone another breast surgery.
“I was sad I couldn’t hug her because of my surgery, but knowing this was finally coming to an end for her was the most indescribable feeling,” says Marilena, who is now in recovery with no signs that her cancer has spread. “As difficult as it’s been for Dani and me, we are grateful for the lessons we learned. Our perspective on life has changed for the better.”
"It's a different level of understanding we have for each other," Danica says. "We understand the drama we've both gone through."
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