Singing is not just my career, it's one of the things I love most in life. So, you can imagine my concern when, a mere 4 months after making my Broadway debut, I found a lump in my neck close to my vocal chords. After several tests and a few doctor visits, I heard the three most disheartening words in the English language, “You have cancer.” I was diagnosed on February 26, 2009 with Stage II Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. My first question to my doctor after hearing the diagnosis was, “Am I going to lose my hair?” The answer to that question was, sadly yes, I would lose my hair and probably after the first chemo treatment. My next question (which in hindsight probably should have been my first) was how will this affect my voice? I was saddled with the fear that this could possibly end my performing career, forever. My doctor very matter-of-factly replied, “If we don’t save your life, you won’t be able to sing anyway.” And thus began my journey to overcome this huge hurdle life had thrown at me.
Three weeks after surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes from my neck, I decided, before I even started chemo, I was going to cut off my hair. So, on April 15th, I met several friends in the basement of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City. My former A Tale of Two Cities colleagues, Katie Beatty and Naba Steinhagen (who herself was battling ovarian cancer), were there, ready with scissors and wig making accouterments. After a champagne toast, the hair cutting commenced and two weeks later, Katie Beatty presented me with a glorious wig made from my very own hair. It was an extremely emotional experience, but also very empowering.
I began my cancer treatment on April 30th. The first phase of treatment was chemotherapy... I was the rookie at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia so naturally I passed out as soon as I was stuck with my first needle. Nevertheless, I received 7 doses (1 every two weeks) of the drug "cocktail" ABVD. It's hard to describe chemotherapy to someone who has never been through it, but for me, there were many days when I just laid in bed and cried because I felt so miserable. I experienced just about every side effect you can imagine from mouth sores and stomach ulcers to bone pain and vomiting. I knew I would get through it somehow, and often tried to remind myself of a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Shortly after completing chemotherapy, I began radiation treatments 5 days a week for a month. Unlike chemo, radiation was almost a walk in the park. Treatments weren't nearly as debilitating and there was a little more social interaction among the patients. I was amazed at how fast I bonded with my fellow radiation recipients. Once you have cancer it’s almost as if you speak another language that only other cancer patients and survivors understand. Everyone ends up sharing their stories and cheering each other on. Your life is forever touched by these very special people.
One of my most valued treasures to come out of my cancer experience are photos. Knowing I wanted to document my baldness, my dear friend and professional photographer, Mark Bradley Miller, came up with the idea of a bald photo shoot. He enlisted the help of makeup artist, Jarrett Brandon and soon everything fell into place. To this day, I will never know how I endured an 8 hour photo shoot in the middle of chemotherapy, but I'm so glad I did. Here are the results of that day complete with some of my favorite inspirational quotes.
On October 16, 2014, 5 years after completing chemotherapy and radiation, my cancer was officially classified as CURED and I can now call myself a cancer survivor. I am forever changed by this experience and remain grateful for the valuable lessons it taught me. I am a better person for having gone through it.
In 2012, my dear friend, Jill Santoriello wrote an inspirational song for me titled "As Long As I Have You", which we premiered at the American Cancer Society's Hope Gala Honolulu. It was later orchestrated by Ed Kessel, and I recorded it at his studio, Sound Imagination. Subsequently, it was made into a music video documenting my journey from cancer diagnosis to my return to performing. It is an anthem that I dedicate to all of you because I know I couldn't have completed this journey without you.
I hope my story can inspire others who are in treatment, recovering or still waiting for a cure. Never, ever lose hope. Miracles do happen and one day that word "cancer" will forever be erased from every language in the world.
Rebecca Robbins. Photo by Dane Wagner.