Allison: Can you tell me a little about your disdain for the term survivor?
Christy: It’s not really disdain, it just makes me uncomfortable. Even writing this makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but it’s okay that you asked 😉 I tend to say “I completed active treatment in 2019” and leave it at that. I guess I think about all of the people who don’t survive cancer and it certainly wasn’t out of a lack of trying. Not to say that getting through cancer treatment shouldn’t be celebrated, it definitely should be and I’d never want to take that away from anyone, it’s just I don’t tend to use the word when describing my own experience. How does it make you feel?
Allison: I guess, in many ways I believe it to be true, as I (and you) have to this point, survived a life threatening illness. However, because it is so linked to a culture set up by the cancer community, sometimes it makes me feel as though it's supposed to become my identity and I now have an obligation to take this identity on as a representation of those of us that do survive. Also, I don't think that it's always understood that ending active treatment does not put you in the clear and there are years of monitoring and pill taking before you can be deemed "cancer-free". There's pressure to play the part of the cancer warrior. It doesn't so much as bother me, as it does make me realize there are a lot of layers to undertaking cancer treatment.
Can you give me a few words that describe this disruption in your dance career as a woman? And how your physicality has been made to adapt?
Christy: Working stopped completely for eight months. After that, my diagnosis as a BRCA1 mutation carrier meant that I had to undergo multiple procedures. For the first year after completing treatment I was in a cycle of: surgery, post-surgery rehab, begin to rebuild strength and endurance and then prepare for the next surgery. So, frustrating to say the least. I do think that my dance training and running helped me through that part though, both physically and mentally. The surgical side of my experience has been "easier" than the chemo and radiation, perhaps because I understand it more? Not intellectually but the way it feels in my body and how to come back from it and adapt. I began teaching dance again after I completed radiation but performing or making work was completely on hold until January 2020.
Dealing with all of this as a woman, that's harder for me to articulate. I remember walking around the streets of Toronto after my first round of chemo and noticing people checking me out. I thought to myself, has this been happening my whole life and I'm only noticing now because I think it's about to stop? It was about to stop. On good days, I remember this and feel grateful and in control, on bad days I feel really, really angry. A lot was taken away from me/us in such a short time, all of which was part of my identity. I guess you could say I am slowly picking up the pieces, with gratitude ... and some attitude.
What my career as a dance artist looks like from here? I don't know, and I realize that everyone is feeling this right now. After our rehearsal yesterday I was a bit emotional because it had been so long since I'd performed something and experienced that feeling of "okay, that was something, I was in the thing", I'd forgotten how good that feels, so thank you.
I'm going to throw the same questions back at you 🙂
Allison: I’m glad you felt that way yesterday, yay! I was in the midst of creating a new self solo, my first in 10 years, when I was diagnosed. Interestingly enough, the piece was exploring how systems in the body are connected to universal systems, most primarily through the lens of a mother. This included a lot of discussion about breastfeeding. Obviously, the work was put on hold and is still on hold because of Covid. I found myself with a new relationship to the content I was exploring, but didn’t have the opportunity to discover it.
I was in the midst of a contract as a dramaturge for a creation throughout my treatment, but my presence in rehearsal became more distant as the chemo progressed. I was tired, and weighed about 85 pounds by the end of chemo.
As a creator, I have not yet had the opportunity to find out who I am as an artist after cancer. But because the experience itself is so massive, it has also put a lot into perspective for me as to how I fit into the current artistic landscape and if it’s even a world I need to be a part of anymore.
As a woman, having had a surgery that took away a part of my body that not only deemed me desirable by society, but was also paramount to feeding my child, has layers and layers of grief that are very difficult to articulate. And, because this loss and its side effects are permanent, it’ll likely take me a long time to fully process. Contemporary feminism tells us that we should not care about these aesthetics, so it is also layered with the guilt of actually caring about my body, both how it looks and how it functions.
Last question, are you ready to do this?
Christy: Heck yes, I’m pumped! Are you ready?
Allison: Kinda.... but I think there's a whole lot more to unpack. Guess it's good that it’s only the beginning!
Photo of Christy Stoeten by Allison Cummings