Posted by Rebecca King on 07.27.2014
Meet Maggie Kudirka. Some of you may know her from the Social Media movement, Bald Ballerina. Maggie is a 23 year old ballet dancer, who was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer 2 months ago. If you have not seen her Facebook page, or don’t yet follow her on Instagram/Twitter (@BaldBallerina), you really should. You will immediately recognize a strong woman with an amazing spirit about her. She has quickly decided to turn her journey into something to help others by raising awareness “that anyone can get breast cancer, even a healthy and fit ballet dancer.”
This is a story you will want to share with everyone you know. Maggie, we wish you all the very best and will be watching as you go through this journey.
To help Maggie’s family with her medical expenses, view her YouCaring.com page.
Rebecca King: When did you start dancing and where did you train?
Maggie Kudirka: I began dancing at age 4 at the Ballet Royale Academy in Columbia, Maryland. My older sister was a student there, so my mom signed me up. I studied with Olga Tozyiakova, Svetlana Kravtsova and Vadim Pijicov and graduated from L’Etoile, the Russian Ballet Academy of Maryland.
I attended Towson University (TU) and earned a BFA in Dance Performance. TU has an equal emphasis on ballet and modern and it was my first chance to study modern dance and learn Horton technique. During my college years, I danced with Ballet ADI, a small semi-professional company based in Rockville, MD, under the direction of Runqiao Du. I created roles in many contemporary ballets choreographed by Du and also danced the White Swan Pas de Deux and the Sugar Plum Fairy. I eventually became the rehearsal assistant for Du.
Joffrey Ballet School (JBS) Artistic Director, Davis Robertson offered me a full merit scholarship to the JBS Ballet Trainee program and an invitation to join the Joffrey Concert Group.
RK: Where have you been dancing recently?
MK: In 2013, I moved to NYC to join the Joffrey Concert Group (JCG), a pre-professional company. The JCG rep is centered around the works of Gerald Arpino and I loved learning and performing his pieces. I was a featured soloist in Arpino’s Light Rain and Kettentanz. Francesca Corkle coached me in the role she created in Kettentanz and I performed it in the concert commemorating Corkle’s 30th anniversary as a teacher at JBS. I also performed Larry Keigwin’s Air, Davis Robertson’s Entropy, and the “April” part in Donald Byrd’s Drastic Cuts. I created a featured role in Shaun Hounsell’s East 10th and created the principal pas de deux in Africa Guzman’s Here and Beyond.
Whenever possible, I would try to get a class in with Willy Burmann and Craig Salstein at Steps on Broadway. Currently I am taking classes at L’Etoile and at Ballet ADI on days that I feel good. I hope to be able to take some modern and ballet classes at TU this fall. I am taking it one day at a time and this time dancing for the pure pleasure it gives me; I’m not worrying about mastering an intricate combination or adding more revolutions to my turns.
RK: Tell us a little bit about your story over the past few months.
MK: Discovery: Last February, I found a lump at the top of my left breast. At first I thought it was a pulled pectoral muscle or a muscle knot because in rehearsals we had been doing a lot of weight sharing and partner work. I put off seeing a doctor because we were getting ready for tour. In March, I felt a pop in my sternum during a lift and thought I strained my sternum or once again pulled a pectoral muscle. It never really healed, no matter how much time I allowed it to rest. I continued dancing; just wanting to finish the season.
After our season ended in May, I saw a sports medicine doctor about my sternum. The doctor ordered x-rays, which showed no fractures, saying it was just a strain. I later learned that the pain was from cancer that had metastasized to my sternum. Neither the orthopedist nor the radiologist had any reason to suspect a 23-year old woman would have sternum pain due to stage 4 breast cancer, so they never looked beyond checking for fractures.
Diagnosis: Because it is so rare for a woman my age to have breast cancer, I had to wait several months for an appointment. When I was finally seen, the doctor led me to believe that my cancer was not very serious and said he could arrange for treatment in NYC so I could continue dancing while getting chemotherapy. While I liked this option, I was uncomfortable that he never gave clear answers to my questions and was vague about the treatment plan.
I decided to get a second opinion. I went to see the best breast surgeon in Baltimore. I immediately realized that his reputation was very well deserved. Unlike the first doctor, he gave me a complete physical exam and explained what he found and what was shown on the mammogram. He arranged for us to see a highly-respected oncologist the next day. These two doctors moved heaven and earth to get all the necessary tests, scans, MRIs, and biopsies done ASAP so I could begin treatment before the cancer had spread any more. The one bright light was that my type of breast cancer (Her2-neu 3+) responded very well to several new drugs.
Aftermath: My new medical team encouraged me to continue dancing but said that it would pretty much be impossible to continue dancing and rehearsing at an elite level while undergoing treatment. I decided to move back to Maryland to be with my family during treatment.
Everything had seemed so surreal until I actually returned to the Upper West Side apartment that had been my home for the last 10 months. I kept thinking it was all a bad dream; I would soon wake up. As I was packing up my dance clothes and shoes, reality hit me hard: the diagnoses; the treatments; the aftereffects. I had no idea how my body would respond to the 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?
Since then, I have had two of my six chemo treatments and have tolerated them very well with minimal side effects. I hope this continues. My tumor has shrunk considerably and my oncologist is very pleased with how well my body has responded to the treatments. While my diet has always been pretty healthy, I have tweaked it to give my body everything it needs as I go through treatment and I am determined to remove anything from my diet that nourishes cancer cells.
RK: While browsing your Facebook page you seem to be full of enthusiasm and have a positive spirit. What do you feel has had the greatest impact on this wonderful attitude?
MK: I have always been a very positive person. Being negative does not accomplish anything and hurts others as well as yourself. While cancer certainly has no positives, it is much easier to face a difficulty if you have hope that the future will be better.
A lesson I learned while studying ballet was that even the most difficult movement can be mastered with hard work and consistent practice. I have taken this approach to fighting cancer. I have changed my diet, added supplements, and begun practicing breathing and visualization.
I have been blessed with a wonderful support system. I am truly amazed at how my family and friends have rallied to help in so many ways. My aunt has spent hours researching treatment options and my cousin has been researching clinical trials. Everyone is convinced that I will be among the 15% that beats stage 4 breast cancer.
Already medical bills have been rolling in and I watched my parents struggle to pay them. I had always been self-reliant and tried to do things without asking for help, but now my family faced a financial crisis. I decided to reach out to the many people who had shown interest in me and set up a donation website on YouCaring.com. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers. I am humbled by their generosity and filled with extraordinary gratitude.
RK: Tell us a little bit about your Social Media Movement, “Bald Ballerina.”
MK: Before I went public with my story, I received a very compassionate email from Brian McSween, the assistant artistic director of the Joffrey Concert Group. He urged me not to dwell on discovering “why” this happened because I would never learn the answer. He gave me this very moving encouragement: “You will cry, you will need people, you will hurt, you will be consumed by fear, but none of these things will be new to you because you have faced them in your dancing already. Don’t be scared to be loved, cared for, or to struggle in front of others. This will be part of your strength.”
So, just as I had often taken Mr. McSween’s notes following a rehearsal or performance, I once again internalized his good advice and a few days later, the Bald Ballerina was born. I first set up the Facebook page to share my journey with family and friends. Second, I wanted to make people aware that breast cancer can strike anyone at any age. Third, I wanted to let people know that it is their right to demand good medical care; to challenge and question their doctors, and to seek second, third or even fourth opinions if uncomfortable with their current care.
Through the Facebook Page, I first started receiving messages from people I knew. But then the movement grew and grew. I began hearing from strangers; some shared personal stories of battles with cancer; others sent prayers, encouragement, and positive energy. Each communication touched my heart and gave me strength. I treasured each message, putting them into a special folder so I can go back and reread them whenever I need a lift.
RK: What do you hope to accomplish with “Bald Ballerina?”
MK: I hope eventually to grow Bald Ballerina into a non-profit foundation to provide grants for medical and living expenses for dancers with cancer. It is hard to concentrate on healing when you are worried about paying your bills.
While Mr. McSween advised me not to question why, I can’t help but wonder if this happened for a reason. There are moments when I break down and think about what I would be doing if this had all been a dream. I would still be at the Joffrey Ballet School, getting ready to perform in the showcase at the end of the summer intensive. But then I think, maybe the universe made other plans for me. Perhaps it is my destiny to bring the awareness that anyone can get breast cancer, even a healthy and fit ballet dancer.
This past month has been hard, and the months to come may be even harder, but I am holding my newly bald head up high. I know I will be returning to the studio full-time with more passion and love for dancing than I ever had before. I am appreciating things like never before because you never know what could happen to bring things to a screeching halt.