Sports Illustrated Model Victoria Vesce on Overcoming a Brain Tumor
The model and lawyer shares her remarkable story with HelloGiggles, and how she inspires others.
Model and influencer Victoria Vesce was a small-town girl with big dreams. In her early 20s, as a professional NBA dancer, she was on her way to the top. When two near fatal brain tumors almost sidelined her for good, she fought her way through, and on to reach a lifelong dream of gracing the pages of Sports Illustrated.
It all started on a buffalo farm in the “middle of nowhere North Carolina,” shares Vesce. “I was a jock. I never wore makeup. I had poufy hair and braces and I was awkward. I was very into sports and academics, and not into socializing,” she explains. “But I had really big dreams and knew the small town life wasn’t for me.”
The 29-year old says as a kid, she was bullied and teased for her looks and awkwardness, and eventually, her modeling aspirations. But Vesce says that all changed when she turned 18.
“My mom really encouraged me because she was always taking my picture and saw that I lit up in front of the camera,” she says. “I saw there was a pageant and I decided to enter. I never even wore makeup or walked in heels but I got to get all glammed up and then I got discovered.”
Vesce started modeling and never looked back. At age 23, she was “living her best life” post-college as a cheerleader for the Charlotte Hornets. She was applying to law schools to fulfill another dream of becoming an attorney.
Suddenly, Vesce says she started experiencing strange symptoms — many of which she attributed to her hard-partying lifestyle. “I was getting migraines but I thought I was just hungover,” says Vesce.
But as the months rolled on, these symptoms became harder to ignore. “The migraines would get so severe, I would throw up. I started getting ringing in my right ear and losing my hearing. I would get adrenaline rushes where my heart would beat really fast, and then I’d crash. I had to take naps all the time. I had to sit out from practice. I knew something was seriously wrong.”
Multiple trips to the doctor over the course of a year yielded little answers. “They saw that I was active and healthy, literally in the best shape of my life, and they told me ‘oh you’re fine!’,” says Vesce. “It was frustrating.”
After repeatedly being treated for an ear infection, it was a 2017 trip to New York to model in Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, that finally got her taken seriously. “I had lost feeling in the right side of my face, I was having trouble hearing and I couldn’t stop throwing up. It had gotten really bad.”
Soon, Vesce received the news that no one ever wants to hear: she had a brain tumor. While an official diagnosis of multiple paraganglioma was a relief as it validated what had been happening to her, Vesce was left devastated.
“I couldn’t believe it because everything was going so good. I had just returned from the Olympics with an NBA team and I was applying to law schools. Now, I was heartbroken. I had to quit the dance team and I thought I was going to die.”
This news sent Vesce spiraling into depression, and what she calls a “very dark period” in her life. “This is when I really found out who my friends were. Suddenly I went from being on top, to a downward slope, and the haters really came out,” she shares.
But it was a positive attitude and focus on mental health, that got her through. “Sometimes you just have to look at the bigger picture and keep on trucking,” she says with a laugh.
“I went from this glamorous, fit girl, hair extensions and all, life in front of a camera, to not being able to bathe or feed myself, or wash my hair. My life was flipped upside-down. That was humbling,” she says.
After undergoing surgery to remove two brain tumors, 31 grueling rounds of radiation, and an experimental treatment at Duke University, Vesce is healthy again, and continuing to tick items off of her bucket list. One of these items… was becoming a Sports Illustrated model.
In 2021, after moving to Miami, Vesce became a finalist for the magazine’s model search, and things were looking up again. She also fulfilled her dream of a law degree, having attended part-time while she was undergoing treatment. Sadly, that same year, Vesce lost the woman who had been “her rock” this entire time: her mom, Denise.
While she’s dealing with some residual effects from her condition, including permanent hearing loss in her right ear, Vesce says she’s grateful for this second-chance at life. “I used to keep my Instagram page with only professional modeling photos and curated images, now I show people the real, authentic me, and my story touches people.”
This includes sharing a photo of herself in a hospital bed, post-surgery.
These days, Vesce is active in the National Brain Tumor Society, and advocates for others with her condition. She also speaks on grief and mental health after the loss of a parent, and pitched in with relief efforts when Hurricane Ian devastated Southwest Florida. Vesce was honored this past July during Miami Swim Week at the 5th annual Wonder Woman Initiative.
The single Floridian also launched a podcast called Validated! by Victoria, where she discusses the perils of dating and maintaining friendships as an adult. “The haters really came out of the woodwork this past year,” she says, including some people Vesce thought were her friends. “Ending friendships now is harder than breaking up a relationship,” she says. “But through all the heartaches and rejection, I’ve stayed consistent with my goals.”
The key is also not letting people walk all over you. “I can go from doormat to aggressive Italian super quick,” jokes Vesce. “It’s really about finding that middle ground and obviously not being a doormat in any relationship in your life,” she advises. One of those goals, is to inspire others. “The most important thing is to just keep going. You never know who you’ll inspire.”