MUSC student turns unthinkable loss into a triumph for cancer research

August 04, 2022
a young woman sits at a picnic table in a garden and smiles at the camera
Occupational therapy student Valerie Salmon says her mother, who became an avid biker, would have been cheering on her participation in LOWVELO22. Photo by Kristin Lee

It’s one of the worst moments many people experience – the death of a parent. And at just age 22, Valerie Salmon had lost both of hers.

This fall, she’ll participate in LOWVELO 2022 and hopes that her loss will help to ensure that fewer people will go through what she has. Rallying the community together to find lifesaving cures for cancer, LOWVELO is an annual cycling event benefiting MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. Participants choose from one of four routes, a virtual option or stationary cycling and join together with volunteers, researchers and the community to celebrate cancer survivors and those who have been lost to the disease. It’s the memory of her parents that’s pushing Salmon ahead as she takes on the longest bike ride of her life.

“It’s weird to have gone through it two times now and to see their different experiences,” said Salmon. “With my dad, I wasn’t able to really lean on anyone. I didn’t really talk about it.”

When Salmon was just 14, she lost her father, Robert, to pancreatic cancer. He was a carpenter for more than 40 years who loved working with his hands. He loved cars and often took Valerie and her twin sister hiking near their childhood home in Charlottesville, Virginia. When he got sick, she can remember pulling away. “I would tell my younger self to be there more,” she said with a hint of regret in her eyes. “I really ran away, and I never wanted to be home, and it caused a lot of tension in my family. That was the hardest part to get over. I wish I would have just been home and spent time with him.”

In a photo of indeterminate vintage, a man and a woman sit in a yellow biplane on a runway with a woods of fall colors behind them 
Valerie Salmon's mother and father. Photo provided

Hard as it was to cope and process the loss, Salmon said that experience helped to prepare her when the unthinkable happened a second time. During her senior year of college, she found out that her mother, Jennifer, had ovarian cancer. “Unfortunately, I do feel thankful that I was able to learn from the experience with my dad,” she said. “So, this way with my mom, I kind of knew what to expect. I’m older. I’m more emotionally mature.”

With her mother battling cancer, Salmon graduated from Virginia Tech and just five days later packed up and moved to Charleston to start her graduate program in occupational therapy at MUSC College of Health Professions. She spent her first semester traveling back and forth to be with her mother and somehow still found peace in the middle of a personal storm. “I don’t know if it was the slight change of scenery, change of pace, finally feeling like I had a purpose, but I never felt so healthy since being here,” said Salmon. “I finally went to a really good grief counselor, and I think that really helped all through fall semester.”

During her spring semester this year, her mother passed away but talking about her still brings a huge smile to Salmon’s face. “My mom was active – swimming, biking, running, walking, yoga, hiking, anything,” she said, chuckling. “She was a special education teacher, and if she wasn’t teaching, she was out in nature with her friends.”

a young woman and a woman with shaved hair stand with arms around each other under a rainbow 
Valerie Salmon with her mother. Photo provided

Biking was her favorite, and when she first got sick, Salmon’s mother wasn’t able to do it. “Then she went into remission for a little bit, and that’s when she really went ham on the biking. She would go like 100 miles.” One time, her mother even biked the 140 miles from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia, to visit Salmon’s sister in Newport News, camping on the side of the road along the way.

“That’s probably why I’m doing LOWVELO,” Salmon said of joining a team for this year’s ride. “Because she loved biking so much. I think she would love that I’m doing this. She would be throwing all this bike gear at us! Helmets, the clothes, the biker shorts with the butt pads – all of it. I think she would be really proud. It’s the one thing that keeps me going … just knowing she would love it.”

Salmon is not only biking in this year’s LOWVELO, she’ll be taking on the challenge of the 100-mile route on one of her mother’s bikes – an extra special way to honor her. She’s leading her peloton, the Training Wheels, in fundraising as well, and they’re currently leading all registered teams.

Aside from making her mother proud, Salmon said LOWVELO is so important because 100% of the money raised by participants funds research at Hollings Cancer Center, and although her parents both received treatment in Virginia, she remembers how much clinical trials helped. “Hollings is the only NCI-designated cancer center in the state, and all the money is going to research,” she explained. “That means a lot to me. I really remember, with my mom especially, how much of a difference that made in her hope and drive to fight.”

The loss is still fresh, and Salmon admits that she has days when she wakes up and just knows it’s going to be difficult to get through. But having the community of her classmates and her LOWVELO team has made all the difference. “I feel really thankful for my program and my peers. I’ve never felt so supported by any other group of people,” Salmon said. “I just think it’s really sweet that it feels like a very loving community, like everyone is coming together to support me and a good cause.”