SI Swim model Victoria Vesce recalls overcoming ‘nightmare’ brain tumor: ‘I had every symptom in the book’
Victoria Vesce didn’t think she would ever see herself on the pages of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. But the full-time attorney was soon frolicking on the beaches of the Dominican Republic, rocking a skimpy two-piece for the cameras.
The model, a finalist for this year’s SI Swim Search, was chosen among thousands of submissions to be photographed by acclaimed SI photographer Yu Tsai. The winner of the annual casting call will become a rookie in the 2023 issue.
It’s a time of celebration for Vesce who, in 2017, was diagnosed with multiple paraganglioma, a brain-skull tumor and a carotid body tumor that required surgery and pinpoint radiation treatment.
During her time at Duke University Hospital, she voluntarily participated in a study to help more patients overcome rare tumors.
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Victoria Vesce was photographed by veteran SI Swimsuit photographer Yu Tsai.
She’s an advocate for the National Brain Tumor Society, an organization that helped her during her radiation treatments at Duke Cancer Institute. On July 16, she will be honored at The 5th Annual Wonder Woman Initiative at Miami Swim Week.
Vesce spoke to Fox News Digital about her health journey, what compelled her to try out for SI and how appearing in the magazine was an empowering experience after enduring loss.
Fox News: You were diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2017. What exactly happened?
Victoria Vesce: I was an NBA dancer for the Charlotte Hornets from 2014 to 2017. I was in the best shape of my life. Then, all of a sudden, I started getting sick. It was about six months of getting misdiagnosed. It all started with migraines and dizziness. When you’re a seemingly healthy 23-year-old, you just ignore it and keep living life. I’ve never dealt with anything more than a cold before. This was all new to me.
Victoria Vesce attends the TBT Magazine Charleston launch party powered by Berman Law Group April 28, 2022, at Ink Charleston in Charleston, S.C.
(Derek White/Getty Images for TBT Magazine Powered By Berman Law Group)
I was at CrossFit one day going really hard … then my ear popped. Just immediately, I lost maybe 40% of my hearing. My ear was bleeding and I was dizzy. But again, I brushed it off. That was the start of my brain tumor going through my ear canal. And that started a six-month journey of getting sicker and sicker. I was tired all the time. I had extreme nausea and facial numbness. My blood pressure was low, and then I would have these sudden adrenaline rushes. But it all started slowly. By the time I was really diagnosed, I had every symptom in the book.
In 2017, Victoria Vesce was diagnosed with multiple paraganglioma, a brain-skull tumor and a carotid body tumor.
(Courtesy of Victoria Vesce)
Fox News: What was your reaction when you finally got diagnosed with multiple paraganglioma?
Vesce: I felt a sense of relief, honestly. For six months, I felt like doctors thought I was crazy. From the outside, I looked perfectly healthy. But I just knew something was wrong with me. I kept going to urgent care, and nobody could pinpoint what I had. My mom, who has since passed away, kept pushing for doctors to keep looking further and do more tests. She was a nurse. She knew.
By the time I got a hearing test, I was already losing my hearing. They found nerve damage. I just thought maybe I hurt my ear somehow during NBA dance practice. But, eventually, I was told, “We found a mass in your head.” My heart just dropped. I was 23 years old. I’m healthy. How could this happen? In one way, it was good to know that I wasn’t going crazy. But, by then, it had spread down my neck into my carotid artery. I went from living my best life, traveling, modeling. Then I get hit with something insane. I was relieved to finally have an answer, but I didn’t know how to react. It was like my nightmare, a nightmare coming to fruition.
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Victoria Vesce, who was in "the best shape of my life," underwent grueling treatment.
(Courtesy of Victoria Vesce)
Fox News: What was your treatment like?
Vesce: I was referred to Duke University Hospital. It was a long process of tests. But, right before my birthday, I was told I had another tumor. No longer one, now two. It was mentally hard to stay positive and not stress myself out. Stress can trigger brain tumor growth. And then I was told I needed surgery, or I would be at risk of paralysis or even death. I was terrified, but I did it – May 2017. I went through a six-week recovery time to eat and walk again. It took forever just to stand up. I thought it would be all over. But then I ended up doing 30 rounds of experimental radiation treatment.
Today, Victoria Vesce is fully deaf in her right ear. She also suffers from tinnitus.
(Courtesy of Victoria Vesce)
Fox News: How are you doing today?
Vesce: I’m doing great. I mean, I lost 100% of hearing in my right ear. I do go for routine MRI checkups because they have to leave remnants of the tumor in my head. It wrapped around my brain stem. There are a lot of nerves involved and if they end up touching it, I could be instantly paralyzed or have a stroke. So there is some of it in my head that gets monitored by an MRI. But luckily, everything’s been stable.
Fox News: What do you think kept you going during your health journey?
Vesce: That’s a good question because it was a dark period in my life. I have always been pretty positive, maybe a little stubborn. But my mother, my best friend, she kept me motivated. She would always say, “We’re gonna get through this together.” Honestly, if I didn’t have such a strong support system of family and friends, I’m not sure if I would have gotten through everything. They kept me mentally strong.
I pushed myself. I would say to myself, “Victoria means victory — you’re going to get through this.” And it was easier said than done. I was in so much pain. I felt like my head got run over by a train. And there were lots of complications afterward. I had some infections going on, and I couldn’t even wash my hair for a long time. I couldn’t even bathe myself. My mom had to do it. There was just so much more than the physical that I had to overcome.
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Victoria Vesce earned her doctorate from Charleston School of Law.
Fox News: What compelled you to eventually try out for the SI Swim Search?
Vesce: I had a friend who said, “Why don’t you try it out? You have such an inspiring story.” But I was in pain. I had recently lost my mother, and I was trying to cope with that. But I tried it anyway. I made a super quick telling my story unscripted … And then, a few days later, I was chosen to do a round of interviews. I was in my PJs watching TV when I got the news. I just started screaming because I was overjoyed and overwhelmed. I couldn’t stop crying. I went through this tumor and I lost my mom. I felt like nothing was going right in my life. And this gave me something to look forward to.
On July 16, Victoria Vesce will be honored at The 5th Annual Wonder Woman Initiative at Miami Swim Week.
(Sergi Alexander/Getty Images)
Fox News: What was your relationship like with the magazine?
Vesce: I used to love watching “America’s Top Model” so I loved Tyra [Banks]. And then I was blown away by Kate Upton’s iconic cover in Antarctica. I mean, here was Kate Upton rocking a bikini in Antarctica! *laughs*. But I always loved all the models. I thought they were all so beautiful with different stories. People think it’s just a magazine of women wearing swimsuits, but it’s honestly so much more. It’s a community of women celebrating their bodies, celebrating their journeys in how they overcame struggles in their life. It’s a sisterhood.
Fox News: How has SI given you a sense of empowerment during this difficult time?
Vesce: I didn’t know who I was anymore. I felt like I was losing a sense of myself. I was losing my spirit, my motivation. And to get chosen for anything brought some spark back into my life again. It felt like I was doing something right. It motivated me to share my story with others. Maybe I could inspire someone to not give up, no matter what they’re going through.
Victoria Vesce hopes her story will inspire others.
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Honestly, I’m just grateful to be part of this next chapter in my life, no matter the result. It gave me such a gift. I feel so much more hopeful now. And I’m excited for what is to come. When people look at me, they would never know all the trauma I went through, all the struggles I endured. But I hope that I can make a difference in people’s lives and inspire them to do what they think isn’t possible. Even if you don’t think it’s possible, just try. I did.