Monday, March 7, 2016

Bald Ballerina

At the beginning of 2014, I was living my dream. I was dancing with NYC’s Joffrey Concert Group, a student company that I hoped would pave the way to a professional ballet career.  But by summer, everything had changed. I learned that the lump I found in my left breast was caused by breast cancer and the cancer had already metastasized to my sternum, pelvis, and spine.

When my doctor told me I had breast cancer, I thought that maybe I hadn’t heard him clearly.  My whole world turned upside-down; I wondered if I would ever dance again.  I didn’t know how to respond; I just started crying uncontrollably.   

Could this really be happening to me?  At 23, I was much too young; I was thin and fit; I followed a healthy lifestyle; I had no family history; I had never used any hormonal medications. Subsequent genetic testing for a panel of 25 genes was negative. Other than being female, I had none of the risk factors.  This couldn’t be happening.  I would wake up from this nightmare and my left breast would be normal.

Two weeks later, I would learn that my breast cancer had already metastasized to my sternum, pelvis, and spine.  At the time, I knew very little about breast cancer or bone metastases. My first thoughts were whether my bones would remain strong enough to continue dancing and would I be able to get my dance career back on track.

I learned my type of breast cancer (Her2-Neu 3+, ER/PR+) was very aggressive, so I needed to act quickly.  My oncologist gave a sigh of relief when I declined harvesting my eggs.  Not only would this delay treatment, but the hormones needed to harvest the eggs would make the cancer grow faster.  Chemotherapy began a week after our first meeting.

I had no idea how my body would respond to treatments: Would I have any of the awful side-effects described in the informational brochures? Would the drugs destroy the cancer and my body in the process? How many years did I have left to live? Would those years be filled with pain? 

The severity of what was happening didn’t hit me until I started treatment.  I put my dance career on hold and moved back home to Maryland to begin treatment.  On July 1st, I got the first of six chemo treatments (Taxotere, Carboplatin, Herceptin, Perjeta, Xgeva).  During this time, I’d try to make it to ballet class two or three times a week.  I’d barely make it through barre before needing to stop from exhaustion, but dancing helped keep me positive, and my doctors encouraged me to stay as active as possible. 

In November, I learned the chemotherapy was working: a PET-CT scan showed no cancer in my breasts or lymph nodes, and only a tiny bit left in my bones. The next step was surgery.  I had a double mastectomy the day after Christmas. I was thrilled to learn that no cancer was found in any of the breast tissue: a pathological complete response.

My recovery was quick, and I declined reconstruction.  A week later, I returned to the studio and discovered I now had trouble with balancing and turning.  Removing my breasts had changed my center of gravity!  Fortunately, it didn’t take long to make the adjustment.

For many women, this would mark the end of infusions.  But because I was metastatic, there was no end date for treatment; my infusions of Herception and Perjeta would continue for the rest of my life or until they stopped working.  Every three weeks, I went to the hospital for infusions that lasted three hours.  Every four weeks I got an Xgeva injection to repair the bone damage caused by the cancer.  Many times I wanted to end all the doctor appointments, treatments and medicines.  But then I would realize that these treatments made the cancer retreat from my breast and my bones.  I no longer had pain in my sternum caused by the cancer. I could now dance pain free. These tedious treatments were not only keeping me alive, they were making it possible for me to dance!

 Bald Ballerina was Born

I launched the Bald Ballerina Facebook page on June 24, 2014, a few days after being diagnosed.  I wanted to share my cancer journey with family and friends and also to make young women aware that metastatic breast cancer is not just a disease of middle-aged and older women; that it can also strike physically fit young women who follow a healthy lifestyle. My first message was “No one is too young; no one is too fit; no one is immune.”  Soon friends began asking to share my page, and the Bald Ballerina social media movement took off.  I now have close to 7,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram.

It took a while to change my state of mind about my career. I was eager to join a company and start dancing nine to five again, but realistically, my need for treatments would interfere with company rehearsals and touring.  Once I came to terms with my new life and my “new normal”, I modified my career goals. My goals now are to raise awareness of metastatic breast cancer and to freelance dance and choreograph. I spend more time on teaching and speaking engagements. 

Eventually, I want to grow Bald Ballerina into a foundation that provides grants for living and medical expenses for dancers with cancer.  It is hard to heal when you’re worried about paying bills.

"I have learned to accept the things I cannot change.  
This does not mean giving up; 
it means that you may need to find another path to your goal
or you may need modify your goal. "
-Bald Ballerina

Visit the Bald Ballerina website to see more of  Maggie's Dance with Metastatic Breast Cancer

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