Natalie Panarello is just like any other bride-to-be looking forward to her big day. Except she's planning a wedding between chemotherapy treatments and hospital stays after learning she has cancer.
It's the second time for the 30-year-old, from Griffith, NSW, who was first diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma in 2019 — five years after her brother Salvatore was diagnosed at the young age of 16. Her dad's mother, her grandmother, suffered from it too.
Ms Panarello recovered and her cancer cleared after six months of treatment in 2020. She was also moving on with her new partner Andrew Ryan, 40, who she met in September 2021. But in November 2022, just weeks after a "surprising" marriage proposal in October, her world came crashing down. Ms Panarello, who works as a hairdresser, discovered familiar lumps in her neck— a sign her deadly cancer had returned.
"Once I found my lumps I just fell to the ground, I was in hysterics," Ms Panarello, told Yahoo News Australia. "I was in such a fluster, an emotional wreck. I thought I'd overcome it."
Just days after booking her dream wedding for November this year, the 30-year-old said she "felt a bit off" and when tying up her hair noticed the lumps "sticking out of my neck".
"I knew inside it was that again, straight away," she said, admitting she was fearful of what would come next.
Ms Panarello rushed herself to Griffith hospital before eventually heading to Sydney where her hematologist is based. It was on her drive back from Sydney to Griffith she learned of her confirmed diagnosis — her stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma had returned.
"I just burst into tears. I'd been through it so we knew it was [cancer], but you have that tiny bit of hope that it won’t be," she said. "Then Andrew had a cry and the next night it really hit home. We both lay in bed balling our eyes out. He was more scared of what to do and how to look after me, this is all a new journey for him".
'I don't want to be a bald bride'
The diagnosis prompted the couple to bring their nuptials forward, and instead of celebrating in November, they will marry on the 21st of this month — a week they planned around her fortnightly chemo treatments. Ms Panarello remembered how quickly she fell ill after her last diagnosis and feared "being a bald bride".
"I knew from what my hair was like the last time that it fell out reasonably quick," Ms Panarello said, recalling how the chemotherapy made her feel. "By November, I don’t know what I’m going to feel like — I definitely won’t like the way I look — and people tell you you’re beautiful but deep down you don’t feel it."
Going through it the first time, the hairdresser said she "never had the fear of dying". Mostly because her brother had gone through it and survived. But she admits to feeling "extremely anxious" this time around, especially because the relapse means the treatment will be different.
"When you relapse it comes back more aggressive and it spreads a lot quicker and it’s harder to treat," she explained. "I am [worried]. I don’t think I’m coping as well mentally as I was last time. I think it comes down to knowing what’s coming and the feeling of chemo."
Ms Panarello recalls first cancer experience
Ms Panarello will have a permanent PICC line attached to her arm, which she'll have until the end of her chemotherapy treatment. Previously, she got hooked up to a cannula to receive her treatment but it "destroyed" her veins, she recalled. She also remembers getting "bad mouth ulcers" and could barely eat.
"If I could only eat lollies, that’s all Iate," she revealed. "I ate whatever I could keep down".
It took the future bride "a little while to recover" and feel herself again even after going into remission, she recalled.
"A lot of people assume because the treatments are over you’re fine, but you're not. Your body takes a long time to recover," she explained. "I definitely didn’t feel myself because of my appearance, I had no hair, and I’d really put on a lot of weight."
Bride and groom desperate for a family
Despite the challenging times ahead, the future bride and groom are most looking forward to starting a family. But the 30-year-old fears her fertility could be "damaged" now going through chemo for a second time. After her first diagnosis, Ms Panarello went through the process of freezing her eggs in case of infertility, meaning IVF is still an option.
"It was a really upsetting thing for me. To have a family to come home to every day is a big thing for him and I want that too," she said. "It’s something we spoke about when I was first diagnosed."
"But Andrew reassured me that I’ve got my eggs frozen, so if we need to go down the IVF track, we have that option there."
"Great support" from family and friends has helped the 30-year-old remain positive — and pep talks from her younger brother too, who remains in good health.
Following the wedding, Ms Panarello will head to Sydney for further treatment, in what she hopes will only last another few months.
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