Joanna Severino

Just one day after her 28th birthday, Joanna Severino, a high school teacher, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is one of several cancers of the lymphatic system. It typically affects younger people.

After six months of chemotherapy treatment, she received a clean bill of health. But something didn’t feel right, so she insisted on more tests: “I just became my own advocate,” she recalls. When the results came back indicating that the cancer had recurred, Joanna was referred to Princess Margaret Hospital, where she first met with her treatment team—stem cell specialists Drs. Armand Keating and Michael Crump, and nurse Tracy Nagy.

From the start, both Joanna and her team of doctors felt that it was important to treat the disease aggressively, opting for stem cell treatment over further chemotherapy. It was a very emotional time for Joanna and her husband—at such a young age, one of her biggest concerns was her future chances of fertility. She was torn between starting treatment immediately or delaying while she underwent the process of egg banking. “I felt like I had more control over the cancer than my fertility,” Joanna says. However, delaying treatment wasn’t an option, and in August 2002, Joanna received an autolotous stem cell transplant at PMH. The next while was a difficult period, as she slowly began recovery, and wondered whether she’d ever have children. “It was a long, lingering path,” she says.

Four years later, almost to the day, Joanna knows where that path ended—with the birth of her son, Nathan, on August 2, 2006. “You truly do believe in miracles at a time like that. Anything is possible,” she says. Another one of those miracles happened during her transplant at PMH. She was treated in a room which opened to a view of the hospital’s rooftop garden. During the procedure, Joanna’s husband and niece released a butterfly into the world while Joanna watched. The butterfly has long been a symbol of hope and rebirth for her, and a remembrance of her father who died in her childhood.

It was a powerful moment. In memory, Joanna now runs the Wings of Hope project through her educational company, an annual contest for students inviting them to creatively express their feelings of hope for cancer patients. The artwork and written entries are then compiled into a book which is distributed to hospitals, schools and families. In addition to the Wings of Hope campaign, Joanna mentors several lymphoma patients, and, on Tracy Nagy’s suggestion, is looking into becoming involved with the lymphoma support group at PMH.

“You have to go through your own internal path and journey to come to terms with cancer, and you really have to stand up and fight. The strength has to come from within. I really think that what happens in our minds also happens in the external realm,” she says.