Calif. FF-medic's widow launches cancer foundation in memory of husband
Caylie Valenta started the Andy Valenta Melanoma Foundation to honor her 33-year-old husband who died three months after his melanoma diagnosis
The San Diego Union-Tribune
VISTA, Calif. — One year ago this week, Caylie Valenta lost her husband, Vista firefighter/paramedic Andy Valenta, to a rare and aggressive form of melanoma that killed him just three months after he was diagnosed. He was 33 years old.
Valenta said that only people who have endured a sudden loss like she experienced can understand how excruciating and devastating the past year has been for her and their two daughters, Lily, 5, and Grace, 3. Her goal now is to spare other families the same fate.
Valenta, 34, is the founder of the new nonprofit Andy Valenta Melanoma Foundation, which will host its first fundraising event on Monday at the Belching Beaver Brewery & Tavern in downtown Vista. The foundation's goal is to spread awareness and provide free, annual melanoma skin checks for firefighters, who have a higher rate of cancer than adults in other occupations.
Valenta said her husband's oncologists determined that his cancer was "presumptive," meaning it was attributed to his occupation. According to statistics from the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general population. Firefighters also face up to twice the risk of contracting mesothelioma, esophageal and testicular cancers. Some of the possible causes can be exposure to asbestos, toxic fumes from burning plastics and other synthetic materials, diesel fuel and flame retardants, she said.
"It's not fully understood why firefighters have a higher risk for melanoma, but it's being recognized more," she said.
While numerous studies have been conducted over the past three decades on the cancer in firefighters, Valenta said more could be done on the prevention side. She hopes that through the Andy Valenta Melanoma Foundation (AVMF), her late husband's name will be remembered not for how he died but for how his foundation saves future lives.
"The impact of this loss will ripple through the rest of my life and my girls' lives," she said. "The thought of other families going through this, when it's something we may be able to prevent, breaks my heart. Andy was such an incredible person who made such an impact during his life. Through this foundation, his tragedy will be able to transform lives and continue to have a positive impact in this world. I'm so proud to honor him in this way."
The Valentas met 13 years ago at Hennessey's Tavern in Carlsbad. Andy was there to celebrate his new job with the Vista Fire Department. Caylie was there on vacation from her home in Michigan. By the end of the evening, Andy told Caylie he would marry her someday. That day arrived on Feb. 7, 2014.
She describes her late husband as an athletic, energetic man who saw firefighting as his calling. Caylie works as a physician's assistant. She's also a melanoma survivor and she lost a family member to melanoma. But when her husband began experiencing severe headaches and uncontrollable vomiting in December 2020, the Valentas — and the doctors he met with — didn't immediately suspect cancer.
Then in early January 2021, he felt some enlarged lymph nodes in his armpits. A subsequent CT scan revealed what they feared: stage 4 melanoma had caused dozens of tumors throughout his body, from his liver and lungs to his spine and chest cavity. He underwent aggressive treatment to battle the disease and the tumors in his body shrunk, but they multiplied and grew with rapid and unchecked progress in his brain. He went into hospice and died at home on April 25, 2021.
During his cancer battle, the community and fire departments throughout the region rallied to support the family, doing fire truck brigades to the Valentas' home in Temecula and raising nearly $150,000 on GoFundMe. Caylie Valenta used some of the money raised from that campaign to launch the foundation.
Working with a group of firefighters and friends, she launched AVMF earlier this year. Valenta is now looking for medical professionals who would be willing to volunteer their expertise doing skin screenings for melanoma. Her first goal is to set up annual screenings for firefighters at every fire department in North County, as a start. Then she would like to expand the service to San Diego fire departments and beyond. She asks any medical professionals looking to volunteer to reach out to her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She said response among firefighters to the foundation's mission has been universally positive. Although nothing can replace the loss of her soul mate, Valenta said the creation of the foundation has helped her cope with her grief.
"This has really helped a lot," she said. "I wouldn't say it's providing closure. There will never be closure from a loss like this. You don't get over it, you just grow with it. I want his name to live on and have a huge space in our girls' hearts."
The kickoff fundraiser will take place from 4 to 9 p.m. May 2 at Belching Beaver Brewery & Tavern, 302 E. Broadway, in Vista. Belching Beaver is brewing up a new batch of True Grit, an India Pale Ale it created last year in collaboration with Vista firefighters, to raise money for the Valenta family. Beer and T-shirt sales will benefit the Andy Valenta Melanoma Foundation. For details, visit avmelanoma.org.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.