When the going gets tough: Velonika’s story

March 28, 2017

A few years ago, Velonika Luka was midway through a Bachelor of Nursing, when her husband had a heart attack, and then an aneurysm, and her mother developed cervical cancer.

Velonika was sad to withdraw from her degree programme, but her top priority was looking after her husband, whose health issues were ongoing, and making sure her mum was well cared for in her final months.

Last year, she decided to return to the world of learning and signed up for a National Certificate in Group Fitness Level 3, with industry training organisation Skills Active.

As part of the training programme, Velonika had to choose from a list of health conditions, and do a research project on that condition. She chose carcinoma.

In an unwelcome case of life imitating training, a few weeks later Velonika was in a doctor’s office, being told that a routine mammogram had picked up carcinoma in situ – a group of abnormal cells, indicating the early stages of breast cancer.

“So then I had to have tests and a biopsy,” Velonika says. “And the biopsy found a small, 6mm tumour.”

Feeling the pressure

Velonika was soon finding herself exhausted from her chemotherapy appointments, and she still had to juggle her family commitments, social life, and her job as a professional support worker in the community. On top of all that was her Skills Active qualification, which she was completing through the community fitness provider Positive Impact, run by educator and health advocate Latu To'omaga, in partnership with Porirua Pacific Health.

“I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I was scared to tell Latu about my diagnosis because I thought I might have to stop the training programme.

“When I told him about it, I said, ‘It’s the story of my life. I start something and then I don’t finish it.’”

Latu encouraged Velonika not to give up, and arranged for an extension so she could take some time out to focus on her treatment.

But when she returned to the training, it was frustrating not being able to communicate as much as she wanted to, and not having as much energy or time to prepare group routines.

“I was seeing the other trainees doing it, and I wanted to do it, but I just had so much on my plate.”

Three more times Velonika texted Latu, saying she was thinking of giving up.

“Each time, he reassured me. ‘Just breathe. You’ve come so far.’”

Her husband also cheered her on to reach the finish line, reminding her how far she had come since she first started getting back into exercise four years ago. She had stuck with exercising all that time, and now she was so close to being a qualified group fitness instructor herself.

Exercise for the community

Velonika says her motivation for keeping on going was threefold. There was the desire to finish what she had started, and there was the fact that exercise was helping her stay strong and resilient, which was important in her community support role.

Finally, there was her wish to inspire her fellow Tokelauans to get active.

“The Samoan community has always been really into exercise. But over the last four years, I’ve never come across another Tokelauan at a community exercise class. I would like to be an instructor so that I can get other Tokelauans coming in.

“In fact, someone from the Tokelauan community has already approached me about starting up a class. I said, ‘Wait until I’m qualified!’”

With the support of her family, her friends, Latu, and her fellow trainees – especially her “study group” girls, Merry Pahetogia and Dyanna Lukitau, Velonika pushed through and completed her qualification in December 2016.

Mentoring and support is key

Velonika is a fighter and a role model, says Latu.

He believes the mentoring and peer support elements of the training programme – regular meetings and study group discussions – were among the factors that helped Velonika stick with the qualification despite her cancer diagnosis.

Velonika has now finished her chemotherapy regime, and has three weeks of radiotherapy treatments to undergo. Her prognosis is good. Velonika has a big smile on her face when she talks about her future plans.

With her background in supporting patients in the community, she’s hoping that through her work as a fitness instructor, she will be able to offer extra help and support to those exercisers who are recovering from illness and injury.

“My doctors told me: listen to your body, but keep exercising if you feel you can. I continued to exercise, even when I was sick and I was tired, and I was so happy that I could still manage it.”