‘Toughest fight of my life’: Poliana Botelho sees light at the end of the tunnel in battle against cancer

MMA veteran Poliana Botelho is about to enter the third round of her toughest challenge to date, yet she still has a big smile on her face.

Botelho was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2023. After going through it all as an MMA fighter — from wins and losses on the regional circuit to Bellator and the UFC octagon — she just finished radiotherapy sessions in her native Rio de Janeiro.

“I can say this is the toughest fight of my life, because it’s one we’re not used to fighting,” Botelho said on MMA Fighting’s Trocação Franca podcast. “It’s a lot of medication, visiting doctors all the time. It’s a different fight. It’s not in an octagon or a mat, there are no jabs or kicks or double legs, none of that. Thank God it’s all going according to plans.”

The Nova Uniao fighter said training for MMA bouts helped her discover the nodules in her body because she occasionally felt pain during training. Her first biopsy was completed on Dec. 15, the day she turned 34 years old, and the result finally arrived in the first week of January. Doctors called to inform Botelho that had breast cancer, and two other follow-up biopsies were done to determine which route they would go in terms of treatment.

Botelho had surgery in the first half of February and then began rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She is expected to start oral chemotherapy in the coming days, and breast reconstruction surgery should close the treatment in mid 2024.

“What everybody says — and I was able to see that firsthand — is that chemotherapy is the worst part, as it demands a lot from our body physically,” Botelho said. “I’m suffering more in terms of image recently with radiotherapy. I almost have no hair now. People even ask me why won’t I shave it, but I lack courage right now.”

The former UFC and Invicta FC fighter may lack courage to shave her hair, but has displayed plenty of it by fighting this tough battle with a smile on her face.

“I’m feeling victorious, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “When I received the diagnosis, the two things that came to my head were: Will I lose my hair? And how long will I be away [from fighting]? At first I kept making plans, ‘I’ll go back on that month,’ but chemotherapy was postponed a few times because my test results weren’t good. I saw I couldn’t make plans.

“Ending radiotherapy was another victory because you see the light at the end of the tunnel more and more. I’m closer to the end now than I am from where I started, so I’m closer to actually training for real in a cage, to starting to think about actually fighting and scheduling a fight. To know that I’m getting to the end of it gives me so much happiness.”

Botelho said she can’t train freely because of a breast tissue expander. She should be cleared to remove it six months after finishing radiotherapy, sometime around April 2024. Oral chemotherapy starts soon and should last one year, Botelho said. If symptoms are as light as advertised, she expects to resume training “normally” in the second half of 2024.

A winner of nine of her 14 professional MMA bouts, including UFC victories over Lauren Murphy and Pearl Gonzalez, Botelho signed with Bellator after a sole Invicta FC appearance in Sept. 2022 for a decision win against Helen Peralta, however the promotion will ultimately close its doors before she gets the chance to compete in its cage.

Botelho said she has yet to discuss with her manager about her fighting future, but that’s the least of her concerns at the moment.

“I’m battling another fight now, the most important of my life,” Botelho said.

“I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to fight. I think I’ll just enter that cage and cry.”

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