A Front-Row Seat to Battling Breast Cancer

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This local dancer/writer/actress staged her response to surviving breast cancer in a one-woman show.

Imagine that your life’s work demanded a fit body, a sense of confidence in both your appearance and your physical prowess.

And then, imagine it suddenly coming undone — threatening to shatter your identity at its core.


From early childhood, ballet was the core of my identity. I started lessons in kindergarten and became a professional, performing with the Boston Ballet Company by age 13. As I entered adulthood, I became a dance teacher, choreographer, actress and stage director.

Even as I got older, dance remained central to my identity — I began teaching dance to children with disabilities and eventually used dance and drama as a creative arts therapist in psychiatric settings.

Throughout my life, even when I was not performing, I still did a daily ballet workout — it centers me and keeps me fit, physically and mentally. So it was stunning, horrifying, even paralyzing, to learn, at age 45, that I had breast cancer.

I learned just that 13 years ago. Since then, I discovered a way to reclaim the identity that was shattered by cancer. I created a play, Susan’s Undoing, which allowed me to embrace my cancer journey — all of it — from the terrifying moments of my diagnosis to the anger, betrayal and fear I felt during treatment.

The play has also allowed me to speak to others battling cancer — to show them that telling my story was healing for me and that telling their story can be healing for them as well.

But Susan’s Undoing did not emerge spontaneously, effortlessly and intact. The path to performing the play was serpentine and strenuous. The journey really began when I heard that devastating, identity-shattering diagnosis.

Then, after months of surgeries, radiation and hormonal therapy, I was pronounced “cured” by my doctors. However, I did not feel cured. Quite the contrary. I discovered that the hardest part of fighting cancer was after I had been pronounced “cured.”

I had battled cancer for over a year. It was challenging but clear-cut. I had a discernable enemy and a potent army of doctors, nurses and technicians.

The harder part for me came after the battle. I was abandoned by my army, and despite what my doctors said, I didn’t feel “cured.” I still felt weak, fragile and terrified.

In desperation, I began journaling the experience. I had no particular goal in mind — I’d just write things on odd scraps of paper and then stuff them in a large envelope.

Three years later, I opened that envelope and the scribbled entries became the backbone of my play. Since premiering the play in 2007, I have performed it throughout Pennsylvania — I had moved to Philadelphia a year ago from Allentown, where I had spent the past 25 years, some of which I spent teaching theater for youth at the Allentown JCC — and New England.

And last month, I shared my play with my newly adopted hometown with the Philadelphia premiere of Susan’s Undoing at the 2014 Philly Fringe Festival.

The Fringe Festival was the first time I performed the play for general audiences — not for audiences with a specific interest in cancer or survivorship.

I got some interesting and surprising responses. One audience member, a healthy-looking, middle-aged man, told me he had experienced an identity-shattering injury and said I had “nailed” the euphemizing, coded language of doctors.

That is a distinct theme that runs through the play — the way that doctors can skirt the issue when delivering bad news. I think the best way to illustrate this is to share a monologue from Susan’s Undoing:

Oh, I can tell you the exact moment when everything changed; the instant when the chapter called “My Life” ended and the chapter called “My Life With Cancer” began.

It was one week after my biopsy. I had driven down to Philly by myself that day. My surgeon had told me, “I don’t think this is going to be cancer.” And the surgery itself had been so trivial! My doctor wasn’t even there that day [for the post-op visit].

His nurse was standing in for him. I was sitting on the examination table and the moment she walked into the office she said, “Let’s go over the results first.”

That was it. That’s when everything changed. I knew I had cancer. What was there to “go over” if everything was OK?

In addition to traditional “themes,” I use thematic visual elements throughout the play, including a looming industrial ladder that is the sole element of the set. I spend much of the 70-minute play climbing, dangling, balancing and falling from the ladder.

For me, the ladder represents “the tree of life.” We are, all of us, struggling to climb that tree.

The climb became so much more difficult when I got cancer. I was barely hanging on — maybe even fell off a few times.

I show that struggle by climbing the ladder — sometimes wearing a blindfold. But I also wanted the audience to see a glimpse of who I was before the cancer. I do a purely abstract dance at the beginning of the show. I weave my body in and out of the ladder, I hang upside down from it — the tree of life was my delight in those days, before I had cancer. I joyfully explored the intricacies of her branches.

Perhaps, surprisingly, I am wearing the blindfold again at the end of the play. Dealing with cancer, staring Death in the face, made me see that we really do wear blindfolds — all of us; we have no idea what the future holds for us.

But by the end of the play, I have accepted that uncertainty. I embrace Life again. I embrace all of it, including its dangers and uncertainty.

I resolutely avoided a cliched “happy ending,” but audience members have told me that Susan’s Undoing is undeniably uplifting and inspiring.

I think that is because the play bears witness to the healing power of creativity; to the power of the arts to provide consolation and inspiration to those in pain.

Implicit in Susan’s Undoing is the value of embracing and telling your story.

But that doesn’t just happen. First you have to confront and process all your feelings, the good and the bad. One of the things I truly wanted to accomplish with this play was to repudiate the “just be positive” stance that permeates our culture.

There is so much pressure on cancer patients to “be positive.”

It’s ridiculous! You’ve just been told you have cancer. You are going to feel many things — most of them negative. But everybody tells you to be positive.

I knew I had to express all of it. I knew there were other patients who were being told to bottle up their feelings — often by well-intentioned friends and family members.

When I perform this play for cancer patients and survivors, one of the first things they say is, “Thank you for not trying to be brave — for showing all your feelings. Now I know that I’m allowed to express my feelings, too.”

When I look at the play now, I see that it isn’t really about cancer at all. Cancer is just the setting, really.

It’s a play about confronting Life’s challenges.

I am now working with a wonderful filmmaker, Steve Besserman, to take Susan’s Undoing and create a documentary about the making of the play. Steve is an accomplished documentarian whose film Only A Number has aired on PBS. The film tells the inspiring story of his parents, Holocaust survivors who met and fell in love in Auschwitz. I can’t think of a better person with whom to take my play and transform it into film.

As a play or film, Susan’s Undoing chronicles my facing the worst experience of my life and turning it into art. This, I believe, is the most potent, life-affirming act a person can perform.

When you say “This is my story and I am sharing it with the world,” it is the most healing, empowering response I know of to life’s challenges.

In addition to performing, Susan Chase works as a teacher and dance/drama therapist for diverse populations, including children and adults with disabilities. She has penned a book, Saving Grace: How Ballet Saved My Life, in which she identifies specific exercises that facilitated her regaining ballet fitness after cancer. For more information, visit susan-chase.org.

Race Is to the Swift — and Insightful

Pretty in pink? Prioritizing life in pink!

Such is the color scheme of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the national breast cancer research and education organization that, in many ways, has shed light — pink and otherwise — on the need for breast cancer awareness in this nation.

With this being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the organization is taking a lead position in its race for the cure.

The local affiliate presents its annual fundraising Race for the Cure on Mother’s Day.

Elaine Grobman, CEO of that affiliate, which is coming up on its 25th anniversary, recalls that first race in 1991 and wondering whether there would be a baton to pass on the following year. “I remember thinking, ‘Will anyone come?’ Well, 1,893 people took part,” and the number has been increasing since.

There are other numbers she is especially proud of, figuratively, citing the huge grants allocated by Susan G. Komen Philadelphia for research and education. “In every advancement in cancer research, there are Komen dollars,” she proudly declares.

Indeed, this year alone, $535,000 is targeted to University of Pennsylvania/Penn Medicine researchers, with a significant amount of that money raised by the local group.

She cites as Penn standouts — and allocation recipients — Dr. Susan Domchek, executive director, Basser Research Center, as well as director, MacDonald Women’s Cancer Risk Evaluation Center, and Basser Professor in Oncology; Brad Keller, postdoctoral researcher, Computational Breast Imaging Group; and Raymond Acciavatti, a leading researcher and specialist in 3D mammography, used at hospitals throughout the nation.

One of them is at the Einstein Healthcare Network. Indeed, Dr. Debra Somers Copit, director of Breast Imaging at EHN as well as an associate professor of radiology, Jefferson Medical College, recently co-authored what is purported to be the largest 3D mammography research study extant, detailed in the June issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Such progress leads Grobman to realize the race is not only to the swift but the educated — and funded. When it comes to subsidizing breast cancer research, she claims that Komen is “the second leading funder, second only to the U.S. government.”

 

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