WARSAW: Three years ago, Polish champion fencer Magdalena Piekarska-Twardochel won her biggest fight -- against cancer. Now, she is back and dreaming of an Olympic gold in Tokyo.
When she was first diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2018, the fencer cancelled planned holidays and competitions and even gave up on some renovation work she had planned in her home.
"I was starting to say goodbye to the world," the 34-year-old, told AFP during a training session in Warsaw.
She quickly overcame the initial shock and began fighting back with the help of her family and friends.
"I found out Hodgkin lymphoma was a type of cancer that could be beaten, since I was diagnosed at an early stage," she said.
She went through five and a half months of chemotherapy, following the treatment diligently in the same way she would homework or a training programme.
Her friend Aleksandra Furmaga remembers the uncertainty during treatment.
"For all of us, for Magdalena, it was a painful confrontation with reality. We did not know if she had to stay in bed or not, if she could walk around normally," she said.
"It turned out that Magdalena was a real fighter. Three or four days after each chemo, she would get up and function normally."
But there was no lack of far more difficult times, including the moment that Magdalena asked her friend to cut all her hair off as it had started falling out because of the chemotherapy.
"Magda was stronger! I was standing up behind her with the shaver cutting off her hair and she said that actually it wasn't too bad. And it's true, she looked fantastic!" Furmaga said.
- 'Make the most of every day' -
The thought of returning to training kept Piekarska-Twardochel going during her cancer treatment.
"I was counting the days until the end of the treatment and the moment when I could get back. I knew that these Olympic Games were in a way realistic for me."
Relying on what she calls her "stubborn and ambitious" nature, the 1.92-metre (6ft 4ins) Piekarska-Twardochel said she saw the illness as "an opponent, a wound I had to heal"
She started training 15 days after her last chemotherapy session and finally qualified thanks to her determination and hard work. She will travel to Tokyo as a reserve for the women's team.
"I'm not surprised that she's going to the Olympic Games," said Mariusz Kosman, her trainer and the coach of the Polish women's epee team -- one of the best in the world.
"I knew she would get better, she would make it," he said.
Kosman said that following the illness she was "more concentrated on what she does, maybe better organised and making the most of every moment during training."
Piekarska-Twardochel said simply: "My dream is to win a medal".
But she also hopes her story of survival will help others.
"I would like people to get checked out because that is what worked for me," she said.
And she wants people who are healthy to know that "you can fight for your dreams and your happiness".
"What is important is to make the most of every day," she said.