Cancer sucks. I would know….I have it.
I was going for the “just rip the band-aid off real quick and it will hurt less” kinda announcement. How’d I do?
Anyway, let me rewind. In early February I returned from a trip to Miami, ready to get back to life after completing my 10th season as a Radio City Rockette. I was dusting off the audition book, returning to dance class and of course making all those doctor appointments one never has time for during a super hectic Christmas season. During my annual visit to my gynecologist she found a lump in my left breast that she thought I should have someone take a closer look at. Now this was not concerning to me…I had been though ultrasounds before. I had a history of benign cysts. The lump was small and felt like all the others. Because I am almost 35 we decided it was probably time to do a base line mammography. (Insert the worlds biggest thank you card to my amazing gyno…this women SAVED MY LIFE! I repeat…SAVED MY LIFE) Fast forward a little through some more tests, 2 different radiologists, more images, more tests, a biopsy (and a partridge in a pear tree…shout out to my Rockette sisters) Oh and waiting…a whole lot of waiting. A word about waiting. I’m pretty sure the idea of waiting was created as some kind of medieval torture device. I have done my fair share of waiting in my life. Waiting for that phone to ring with the next job offer, waiting for that guy to text you back after a great first date. But waiting to find out if you have cancer is a whole different can of worms. I tried to keep busy. For a few hours I forgot I was waiting for results as I taught a Rockette Experience (more on the power of dance later).
Saturday February 27th started off as a pretty awesome day. I was up early and headed to Newark Airport for my Global Entry Interview. For those who don’t know Global Entry is this great program to fast track your way through customs after traveling outside the country. Interview took all of 5 minutes and I was approved. Woohoo. You see I was about to finally put my passport to some good use. I was scheduled to leave for London the following Friday. But that was only the beginning! 4 days after returning from London I was hopping on a flight to Hong Kong and then continuing on to Bali. BALI!!!!! That evening I settled in with some take out (fish tacos) and some Netflix. I hadn’t had time to check out Fuller House previous to this night and a few episodes were on my to do list for the evening. And then the phone rang. It was my parents….they were at my apartment door.
I had breast cancer. 34 years old….and I was just diagnosed with breast cancer. Its amazing how one little word can stop your world dead in its tracks, flip it upside down and hit you like a mac truck going 90. Did I mention the part where I passed out (2x) upon hearing this news and smacked my face against a wall causing a hairline fracture in my tooth???? Oh yeah, that happened. Anyway back to the cancer…now what? Well for the moment I packed a bag and went to my parents house in New Jersey, because the last place I wanted to be was anywhere alone.
I didn’t sleep that night. I laid in my parents bed with tears streaming down my face. Scared. Confused. In a state of utter disbelief. How does a healthy 34 year old end up with breast cancer? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.
Two years ago I watched as my mother helped plan the wedding of my brother and sister-in-law. I thought that was the most overwhelming experience I ever bore witness to. Until cancer entered my life. One is never prepared for a cancer diagnosis. Its not like it shows up at opportune times in your life. It shows up when you least expect it and throws a wrench in every aspect of your life and the lives of those closest to you.
I am lucky that I have the worlds best radiologist. BEST! That weekend we chatted many times on the phone and he even took time to meet me in person on that Sunday to help guide me as to my next steps. Here’s the heartbreaking thing about breast cancer. We all know someone who’s been through it. Think about it. I can guarantee every single person reading this can think of at least one person who has had to fight this terrible beast. With that said…I had many people to reach out to. I needed doctors. By the time Monday rolled around I had a list a mile long. Then the phone calls began. A word about phone calls. (All friends in “the biz” can relate) Before all this started, seeing a 212 number come up on your phone meant one of two things; Broadway was calling with a job offer (or at least a New York based casting director with a job for you somewhere) or your prescription was ready for pick up at Duane Reade. Now a 212 number was Dr’s offices confirming appointments and test results. Hey Broadway…I haven’t changed my number…feel free to call anytime!
4 days till London. We (I say we because my parents have not left my side since the diagnosis) were able to get in to see one doctor before I was scheduled to take off. I left the doctor, somewhat hopeful, but scared out of my mind, overwhelmed with info and just sad. Now I had to get on a plane. A week ago I was beyond excited to be going to London. Not only was I headed somewhere I had never been, I was being reunited with an amazing guy I hadn’t seen in a month. A guy who after hearing the girl he had met only a handful of times and was now diagnosed with cancer still wanted to travel the world with me. Now I just wanted to cry. My mother came in that day and helped me pack, I remember just crying. Questioning whether or not I should actually be taking this trip. Taking any of these trips. Every doctor told me to take the trips. Take all the trips. So off I went.
Nice easy 6ish hours to London…oh if only it were that easy. The next part of my story is 100% true, you won’t believe it when you read it but I guarantee this is how the next few hours of my life unfolded. I was on an overnight flight to London. We were about 3 hours into our flight, cabin lights were dimmed and we were smack dab over the Atlantic Ocean. I was dosing off and trying to get some much needed sleep. That was until a blood curdling scream for the flight attendants and a doctor quickly brought me back to attention. About 10 rows behind me, a young gentleman was having a seizure. He continued to have seizures for the next 2 hours. The pilot eventually informed us that we would be diverted to Shannon, Ireland to help this man get the medical attention he very much needed. We land in Shannon and the medical team helps this gentleman off the plane. We need to refuel and restock every medical supply the flight crew used for the past few hours to help keep this guy alive. Approximately two hours later we are on our way to London. A quick one hour flight and we are there. Since we landed 4 hours after our original arrival time, my guy was already at the hotel (we had planned to land 20 minutes apart from each other…yeah, that would have been to easy). The cab to the hotel felt like hours. I finally arrive, open the door and collapse in his arms. The tears I cried were tears of relief and happiness. I was finally in London and I was finally with him again. We enjoyed a late lunch in the hotel, chatted and just enjoyed being in each others company once again. I decided I needed a nap before we went out to explore the city that evening. Back to the hotel room we settled in for a relaxing few hours. Maybe 30 minutes later we were woken to the sounds of a blaring fire alarm. Seriously?!?! We called down to the front desk to see if this was a test….nope not a test, the hotel was on fire. We grabbed our jackets, wallets and passports and opened our door to a wall of smoke. We were quickly escorted down stairs and away from the building. Standing in the middle of the street in London and looking into the lobby of our hotel currently being drenched by sprinklers was just to much. Another emotional breakdown ensued. After shedding a few more tears we decided drinks were in order. We plopped ourselves down at the nearest bar and enjoyed some beverages as we waited to return to our hotel. Turns out it was only an electrical problem and there was no fire, just a whole lot of smoke. A few hours later we were allowed to return to our room. The rest of the trip was amazing and uneventful. I did every touristy thing in the book and had the best time doing it. Hong Kong and Bali followed soon after and were unforgettable. (No crazy incidents to report there.)
After two days of travel to return home from Bali, I woke up to a slew of doctors appointments along with more tests. More stress and more decisions. More info and more confusion. But this time there were no more trips booked. It was time to deal with the fact that I have cancer and it needed to be treated.
So what is my actual diagnosis? Glad you asked. I have what is known as DCIS; ductal carcinoma in situ. It is a noninvasive form of cancer, sometimes considered stage 0. One may say, “Stage 0, wow that’s great! Doesn’t seem bad at all.” Still cancer my friend, don’t kid yourself. And if left untreated becomes invasive. DCIS did not show up on my ultrasounds, it was only visible on my mammography (hence the saving of my life bit a little earlier). So lets not even think if I were to follow the current suggested age of 40 for my first mammogram. Yikes.
So I was presented with a slew of options on how to treat this. I knew right away I wanted to be aggressive in my treatment. I have a lot of life left to live and I wanted to return to it as quickly as possible (without fear of a recurrence down the road.) My doctors and I agreed that for me, based on a number of contributing factors (not necessarily the case for everyone) the best choice was a bi-lateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. Woah.
Every time I walk into a Dr’s office for an appointment, they take my vitals and then the onslaught of questions come. Medications? Allergies? Family History of Cancer? My favorite question is previous surgery?..to which I always answer “no”…and then follow up with “I figured go big or go home.” Some find this humorous (and I appreciate their laughter) others just think I am off my rocker. They might be on to something. Ha
Now I have never been a “boob” girl. I actually enjoyed the fact that I was on the smaller side. It never got in the way of my dancing. But as a 34 year old women, coming to terms that part of what makes me a woman, and feminine and sexy was about to be stripped away from me was quite daunting. I knew though that this was the only way to move forward in life with a clear mind and less anxiety. My boobs were trying to kill me and they had to be dealt with.
Monday April 18th should have been my first day of rehearsal for The New York Spectacular; the all new summer show at Radio City starring the Rockettes. Turning down that contract was heart breaking. It was the first realization that my life for the time being was about to change. When these performing opportunities come around you take them because you don’t know when the next one will come your way. As a dancer you work so hard to be able to perform and stay in the game. You train hard to be in the best possible shape. I have always been able to work through injuries in my career. In 10 years at Radio City and 11 productions later I have missed one day; 2 shows. That’s it. Over 1000 performances and I only missed 2. For the first time I felt helpless…my body was failing me and it was something my athletic training team couldn’t fix. So while my fellow leggy sisters lace up there boots and strap on their tap shoes I will head to the hospital for my last minute preparations for my surgery the following morning. My treatment following my surgery is yet to be determined. The pathology of my tissue will dictate the next step for me. The hope (and we will just put it out there that this is the case) is that I will have surgery and be done with it. I’ve got things to do, kids to teach and a summer show to promote!
I need to take a moment and thank some people. I don’t want to mention them by name but they know who they are. I chose to keep my diagnosis very private initially. Its overwhelming. And navigating through just seemed easier with a small boat load of people oppose to a cruise ship. To those people who have battled this beast and stepped up to help I am forever grateful. It is hard to explain to people the emotions but for someone who lived them it is all too familiar. Thank you for being a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen to or just a friend to talk to. Your care and concern has gone beyond and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you to the small group of friends I opened up to. Thank you for the texts, phone calls, walks, hugs, email and support. Though some of you are far, your presence is close to my heart.
A word about my parents (I’ll give you time to grab a tissue…seriously, you will want to go get one)
Fern and David, Golfern and Mr Dave, Yo Fern and Fern’s Husband or just Mom and Dad (however you may know them) are the world’s two most amazing human beings to walk this planet. I have said it before and I will say it again; I have the world’s most incredible parents. One of the hardest parts of the past six weeks has been watching them cry. No one wants to watch their parents cry. There is something incredibly gut wrenching about watching tears stream down their face and knowing that they are crying because of you. They are crying because they can’t take away the pain. They are crying because they would do anything to not watch their own child suffer. They are crying because as a parent they just want to make everything ok. They have not left my side since my diagnosis. They have accompanied me to every single appointment. EVERY SINGLE ONE. Yes ladies and gentleman you have not experienced embarrassment until your father sits in a plastic surgeons office squeezing breast implants….and giving his opinion. But I am so lucky and thankful. I wouldn’t have it any other way. They have shown up to take me to lunch or help with my laundry or just to go grab a milkshake. There is something about a cancer diagnosis that makes you feel incredibly alone. No matter how many people may be around, you always feel like you are suffering alone. I know my parents will do everything in their power, till the very last cancer cell has left my body to make sure I never feel like I am alone. They are amazing. They are my superheros. And there are not enough thank yous in the world. (Now go call your parents and tell them you love them!)
A word about dance. No one chooses the career of professional dancer because its an easy one. You choose it because it’s your passion. You choose it because there is nothing else on this earth that makes you feel alive and sets your soul aflame the way movement does. I dance because I don’t have wings to fly. One could argue a career in dance even chooses you. I know this is my case. How do I know you may ask? Well if I have learned one thing from being a dancer it is how to be strong. Physically of course; but more so mentally and emotionally. My path has not been an easy one. There have been more no’s than yes’s. Some years more downs than ups. But you keep going…because you have no choice. Its a way to survive. A life without dance is like a life without water or food. If I had taken no for an answer I would have never found any sort of success. This bump in the road is only that. I may have shed more tears in the past 6 weeks then in the previous 34 years combined but that does not make me weak. It makes me human. The show must go on! So bring it on cancer. I’m ready to kick your butt! (pardon the cliché, I mean I had to throw it in somewhere).
Why am I sharing my story? For starters, I am the walking example that early detection saves lives. If I can help one person out there it was worth it. So ask your mother, grandmother, sisters and aunts if they are up to date on their mammographies. It might just save their life too. When it comes to my treatment, I am very lucky to be in a fortunate situation with my healthcare. I know that others do not share this luck. There is an organization I’d like to let you know about called “I’m A Dancer Against Cancer.” They are amazing. Their mission is to provide financial support to dancers, dance educators and parents impacted by cancer. It is so inspiring to see young dancers fighting so hard to beat cancer. Dance has brought so much joy to my life. I want to see these young dancers thrive and grow up to follow their passion! I ask that you take a few minutes and click on the donate button on my web page. Any amount counts and it matters. My 35th birthday will fall the week after my surgery…I am not asking for flowers, gifts, cards…(maybe some diamonds. Ok kidding…kinda) I am only asking you donate. Click there now! It makes such a difference in the lives of these dancers!
Thanks for reading my novel. Sorry it was so long. I had a lot to say. Stay tuned for updates!
One final thought:
the odds of becoming a Rockette based on number of women who have auditioned….less than 1%
the odds of someone developing breast cancer between age 30-40…..also less than 1%
Defying the odds one improbability at a time!