Previously published as “How Making Dancing Videos Helped Me Cope With Chemo and Radiation” on The Mighty on April 28th, 2017
The email arrived on my 52nd birthday in the wake of a bilateral lumpectomy for breast cancer. While healing from the surgery and post-op infection, I did my best to adjust to my diagnosis and tried not to dwell too much on the upcoming chemo. I wasn’t feeling particularly celebratory as I opened my laptop and signed in to check my email that day. I was pleasantly surprised to find a string of emails, each one with a, “Happy Birthday, Deb!” subject heading.
The emails heralded from a cohort of recently graduated Child Life students, all of whom had taken my course on therapeutic play while pursuing their Masters in Child Life. Child Life specialists use play to support children through their hospitalization. They are the ones who focus on a child’s emotional and developmental needs, seeking to make the hospital a less scary and more manageable experience for child and family. And now, in these emails, they were putting their skills to the test, reaching out to show me, their professor, support in my time of need.
Each email contained a video, and although they all differed slightly, there was definitely an emerging theme. Every video held some rendition of Katy Perry’s pop tune “Firework” — either a straight cut from Youtube, or a homemade video with the song playing and the students lip-synching and dancing for the camera. I sniffled noisily and swiped the tears from my cheeks with the back of my hand as I felt their good cheer washing over me. Each video moved me, but it was the final one that had a lasting impact.
I re-positioned myself to find a comfortable spot against the soft cushions of my couch and clicked on the link to the video from my former grad student. The accompanying email read, “Deb you have inspired me to get up and dance. Happy Birthday from me, Tiff and George Bailey! I love you!!!” I pressed play and the video buffered and then revealed my student center-stage, holding her dog (George Bailey!) and dancing to Katy Perry blasting in the background. To the right is her sister, Tiffany, also dancing, albeit with a bit more restraint. Two weeks earlier, at the age of 30 and six months after her wedding, Tiffany was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. And here she was, teaming up with her sister to support me in my own battle. My breath hitched in my chest as I watched through a haze of tears.
When I reached out to my student to thank her, she informed me her sister had been struggling with a dark mood since her diagnosis and this video was the first time Tiffany had really moved her body and raised her arms since surgery. I took all this to heart, and vowed to myself I would not take this gift lightly. Inspired deeply by Tiffany’s actions, I decided I would make my own videos, to cheer myself (and maybe her) through the process. Each and every week before my eight chemotherapy sessions and six weeks of radiation, I chose a kickass song and danced and sang to it — capturing my ungainly efforts on video. Playing everything from Springsteen’s Badlands to Katy Perry’s Roar, I roped in family and friends, child life grads, my dog, my husband, anyone who had less shame than me. Towards the end, I even wrote my own lyrics to a Christmas carol and sang acapella. As my hair thinned and my energy faltered, these videos kept me focused on the road ahead and also helped me show the world I was more than my diagnosis. Baby, I was a firework!
These are some of the videos:
AND last but not least, Shani Thornton, aka @ChildLifeMommy, lent me constant support with ongoing videos of her own. Without these, I never could have kept my sense of humor or optimism. Thank you, Shani!!