Lyani Valle: leukemia survivor, Obliteride walker

Hutch News

Lyani Valle: Leukemia survivor, Obliteride walker

'Cancer was a huge wake-up call to what is important in life'

Aug. 3, 2018
Lyani Valle, Obliteride walker

Lyani Valle, a program manager at Amazon, survived a rare form of leukemia using a therapy made possible by research at Fred Hutch. She is raising money for the Hutch as an Obliteride 5K walker.

Two years ago, Lyani Valle was looking forward to her last infusion of arsenic.

A form of the fabled poison, combined with pills containing a derivative of vitamin A, is the state-of-the-art treatment for her rare type of leukemia, and the therapy was working beautifully. Today her leukemia remains in complete remission.

On Aug. 11, she plans to walk 5 kilometers to raise money for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She’ll be joined at the Obliteride fundraiser by more than 130 walkers and bicyclists from Amazon, where she is a talent acquisition program manager for the Americas.

“I survived because of a research breakthrough, and it became personal once I learned what Fred Hutch did for me,” she said.

Ride or walk or volunteer!

Fred Hutch will hold its sixth Obliteride fundraiser for cancer research on Saturday, Aug. 11. Festivities begin on the evening of Aug. 10 with a Friday Night Kickoff Party at Seattle’s Gas Works Park for participants and guests.

On Saturday morning, bicycle riders will start their 25-, 50- or 100-mile routes. For the first time, Obliteride will also have a 5K route for walkers. All rides will start from the University of Washington Parking Area E-18. You can register there to walk or ride up to one hour before each route begins.

Everyone will finish the day with a celebration at Gas Works Park.

You can donate today to Obliteride, or a specific person or team. If you would like to help out as a volunteer, please sign up here.

Valle was living in Miami when she was diagnosed in December 2015 with acute promyelocytic leukemia, or APL, a relatively rare cancer of the bone marrow marked by an accumulation of immature white blood cells. That leads to a shortage of mature red and white blood cells as well as platelets that stem bleeding.

In the 1990s, the late Dr. Steve Collins, a Fred Hutch physician-scientist, showed that infusions of retinoic acid — the vitamin A derivative — can trigger a series of molecular actions that drive immature blood cells to produce healthy ones. Eventually, a combination of the chemotherapy drugs arsenic trioxide and all-trans retinoic acid was proven remarkably effective against APL. It is now common for 80 percent to 90 percent of APL patients to experience remission. And so it was for Valle.

“If you are going to get leukemia, that’s the one you want,” she said.

Remembering cancer's toll

When she walks for the Hutch during Obliteride, she will be thinking about the toll cancer has taken on her family: Valle's father survived prostate cancer, but his own mother died of pancreatic cancer; an aunt is a breast cancer survivor.

However, there is one person in particular Valle will have in mind as she walks the Obliteride route on the Burke-Gilman Trail to Seattle's Gas Works Park.

“I’ll always do this for my mom,” she said. “I made it, but she did not.”

When Valle was hospitalized at Miami’s Baptist Hospital Cancer Center in January 2016, her mother was back in their hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in stable health but living with metastatic breast cancer. On Sept. 30, 2016, the last day of Valle’s successful treatment for APL, she learned that her mother had developed a secondary cancer, acute myeloid leukemia. Bernice Marie Cordero died two months later. She was 73.

“I don’t want to lose another friend or family member to this awful disease,” she said. “Everyone can make a difference in this fight. It just takes intent and action.”

When Valle moved to Seattle last year, one of the first things she did was look for opportunities to give back. She volunteers at the blood bank. She heard about Obliteride, and volunteered to help with that event. “I can’t ride a bike for my life, but I was there cheering at the finish line,” she said.

This year, Obliteride added a new event for non-bikers, the 5K walk. Although she has lasting joint pain and nerve damage as a side effect of her therapy, Valle signed up and has already met her fundraising goal. She participated in an Obliteride fundraising video produced by her Amazon colleagues, and she encourages others to donate to her team.

“Cancer was a huge wake-up call to what is really important in life,” she said. “It is family, friends and purpose: real purpose, making a difference in your life and for others.”

Lyani at Obliteride 2017

Lyani Valle (right) volunteered with other Amazon employees at the Gas Works Park finish line for Obliteride in 2017. This year, she is participating as a 5K walker.

Photo courtesy of Lyani Valle

Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at srussell@fredhutch.org.

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