How Dance Helped Me Cope After Breast Cancer

Alanna (back row, second from right) performing in the Toronto Salsa Festival before she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Dancing has always given me life. As a little girl, I took tap and ballet and then as a teen, I was as a competitive pairs dancer in figure skating (third in Ontario!). I rekindled my love for dance as an adult by learning Latin dancing – Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba to start. I trickled into the training on a few performance teams and performed at events like Mas Thursdays at El Rancho, Estonian House, Dance in the 6ix and showcased at the Toronto Salsa/Bachata Congress. Then the flood gates opened. I started taking more diverse styles like Hip hop, Jazz funk, Dancehall, Soca, Afro, and most predominantly, Heels.

I had just dipped my toe into the Heels dancing world the year I was diagnosed with Stage 3a Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I never fomo’ed so hard in my life when I had to take off my Heels and put dance on hold to focus on my health. It was hard to pause something that sparked so much joy and always left me feeling happy.

During Cancer Treatments

For my sanity, I danced a bit throughout my cancer treatments. After the six weeks of recovery from my unilateral mastectomy with immediate DIEP Flap reconstruction surgery, I went back into the studio and took a few drop-in classes before chemo started. My body was stiff and tight and I had lost almost all the range of motion in my arm where 26 lymph nodes were removed. The newly-healed incisions across my lower stomach pulled if I arched my back or did any floor work. I gifted myself private lessons during chemo because I knew I could no longer keep up with the faster pace of drop-in classes. Once I was in remission, I fully returned to dance.

Alanna (left) dancing throughout chemo.
My Dance Comeback Wasn’t Easy

I would be lying if I said it was easy returning. I had gained 15lbs during treatment from literally lying in bed for 10 months. I was the epitome of out of shape. I would be so gassed just doing a 40-second combo that I would have to catch my breath for five minutes after each run through. I had to start all over again as if I had never taken dance before in my life. Over the course of my cancer treatments, I watched, through Instagram, all the other dancers I used to dance with excel, improve and slay. I had to focus on not comparing myself to others. I was in my own lane and I had to remind myself that every time I walked into the studio and put my heels back on.

Alanna (right) returning to dance after her breast cancer treatments.

I wasn’t totally fine after cancer. My post-cancer body and mind shifted my perspective. Once treatment ended, I suffered from PTSD. I felt like a lost puppy that had been taken into an animal shelter. I was scared, timid, and nervous. I was depressed. I didn’t feel like I had a purpose after spending almost a full year fighting for my life, which made me feel disconnected with the world and myself.

Dance was Crucial in My Healing

Dance is the one place I feel out of my comfort zone, which continues to push me to grow as a person. The dance style, Heels, has helped me to work through the lack of confidence and sensualness I had with my body and mind post cancer. Taking the Heels workshop has taught me to re-learn to love my unapologetic self and has led me to my new sense of purpose of inspiring others. It has reconnected me with myself, my sexuality as a woman (which I thought was lost and broken from cancer), and has empowered me to live my best second-life fully.

Alanna (middle) Heels dancing post breast cancer treatments.

For me, dance has been extremely crucial in helping me heal after breast cancer. It has helped me embrace my new self, own my new looks, and continues to remind me to not be so hard on myself and most importantly, to have fun. It gives me a sense of calmness and peace yet gives me so much energy and vitality. Dance has helped my chemo brain by improving my memory retention and also helped me manage hot flashes from taking the  Tamoxifen! I used to have really intense hot flashes averaging about every hour, all day and night, lasting for three to fifteen minutes at a time. I dance about an average of 6-10 hours a week and my hot flashes are down to once or twice a day now. Besides the obvious fitness aspect of cardio, dancing is a full-body workout.

Even before cancer, dance helped me cope. As a healthy distraction, it gave me the strength to rise above so many of life’s unfortunate circumstances. It has helped me manage work stress, heartbreaks, family stuff, and the obvious: cancer. There’s something about walking into the studio after having a crappy day and leaving all that sh*t at the door for a few hours. I walk out feeling happy, sweaty as hell, relieved and so so energized. It lets me express myself, my emotions and my feelings which is something we all tend to suppress daily, but even more especially after going through cancer.

The dance community is such a magical environment full of positive energy and support. Especially in the Heels world, the worse you do, the harder the other women cheer you on and boost your confidence. There is so much love in the room. Coming from recovery, this is the exact environment every young woman needs in her life. These women encourage, inspire and lift you to embrace your womanhood. It is a safe space to grow and embrace change.

Alanna (middle) all smiles while Heels dancing after her breast cancer treatment.

Fast forward to today. It has been 10 months since I returned back to dance and I’m down 15lbs. I am just shy of being one year in remission. Since returning, I have seen a shift in my dancing – I am incredibly gutsy, fearless, and confident (something I used to be self-conscious of pre-cancer.) The growth in myself and in my dancing has been exponential since my return and I wouldn’t be where I am today without dance. Since going through something as tough as breast cancer, everything that used to seem so hard is now a delicious piece of cake. And let me tell you, that cake tastes good! – Alanna Gatchalian

To read more about the benefits of dance and other physical activities after a cancer diagnosis click here.

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