Dancing My Way Back From Cancer: An Ovarian Cancer Survivor’s Story
By Amy Warcup As I spun joyously in my living room with my veil billowing in a sail behind me, I marveled in
near disbelief that I was actually doing this. I was belly dancing once again, alone at home,
twirling my veil with the song Dzovasdghie serenading me in the background. In that moment, I was a carefree, healthy woman again. It didn’t matter that I was bald, or that I had six fairly fresh incisions in my abdomen from my recent surgery, or that less than four months earlier I went into heart failure from chemotherapy infusions and was fighting for my life. I felt alive again, my spirit and body merged, expressing myself with this beautiful, feminine art form known as belly dance. Although I knew I had two more rounds of chemotherapy left before I would complete my treatments, this moment gave me great hope that I would continue to dance again in my future. After experiencing so many changes in my body during the prior months, I had assumed early on during my treatments that belly dancing would be a memory from my past.
In June 2020, as most of the rest of the world was grappling with the shock of being amidst a
global pandemic, I learned that I had advanced stage ovarian cancer. I was stunned. There was no known history of cancer in my family. I always considered myself to be a “health nut.” I had a career teaching yoga and massage therapy for many years. Sure, I enjoyed cupcakes and cocktails on occasion, but in general, I have always been very particular about my diet, the products I use on my body, and I drink water almost incessantly. Although I was aware that cancer has the ability to invade unsuspecting people’s bodies, I never believed that mine would be one of them. I saw myself as an energetic and youthful middle-aged woman. I assumed I would grace into old age with ease, enjoying my retirement one day with my husband, living somewhere in nature, still dancing and doing all of the things I loved. Cancer was never even on my radar.
In the weeks that led up to my diagnosis, however, my body began changing dramatically. What began as mild bloating and food intolerances transformed within weeks to my abdomen expanding so large with fluid that I appeared to look eight months pregnant. I could barely take two bites of food without feeling full. I was breathless from walking down my stairs. Eventually, I couldn’t even stand up to take a walk to the end of my driveway. My doctors were bewildered. Waiting times to get standard routine medical tests were booked for weeks due to being backed up from the early stages of the COVID lockdown. In desperation, I finally checked myself into a local hospital’s emergency department, where I waited alone for 9 hours to get a CT scan to look at my severely boated belly. It only took 30 minutes after the CT scan, however, to get the blunt and emotionless diagnosis from the doctor. “Your scan shows you have advanced stage ovarian cancer. We’re guessing it’s at least stage three.” I laid there stunned in disbelief for a moment, followed by uncontrollable tears. The doctor, who appeared extremely awkward and uncomfortable, promptly left me. I was alone. My husband was not allowed to be with me due to COVID. In that moment, my entire life seemed to pass before my eyes.
Treatments began quickly. I had dozens of cancer tumors in my abdomen. Several liters of
malignant ascites fluid was drained from my belly that first week. My cancer was aggressive
and I needed to start chemotherapy right away to shrink the tumors before having a “radical
hysterectomy” (the removal of the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes) to remove the cancer,
which would send me into instant menopause. I was terrified. It happened too quickly for me to process. I went into a sort of “autopilot” as my life no longer felt like my own. Medical
appointments were scheduled for me on nearly a daily basis. Everything I felt I once had control over was suddenly gone. Infusion days lasted for at least five hours or more. The chemotherapy treatments were hard on my small body and caused me to go into heart failure. I then became a cardiology patient as well as an oncology patient. As terrifying as this was, I also knew I would die without my treatments. My cancer was spreading fast.
After the first couple months of treatments, I slowly started to do gentle yoga and take short
walks on the days I felt well enough, but I had dismissed belly dancing as a part of my past that I would not be revisiting. I felt ugly, unfeminine, and weak - everything in my mind at the time did not represent what a belly dancer should be. The images of many belly dancers on social media of women with long, beautiful hair and unscarred, perfect looking bodies made me feel inferior.
Physical appearance seemed to have such a strong association with belly dance on social
media - the costumes, the hair, the beautiful bodies of the women, and the makeup. In the early stages of my treatment, I completely disassociated with the part of my life as a belly dancer. Aside from being too ill to have the energy to dance at the time, I no longer saw myself as fitting the image of a belly dancer. My dancer spirit was broken.
I was a “late bloomer” as a belly dancer. When I hit my early 40’s, I had this feeling of
restlessness inside of me. I needed something new to spark my soul. As someone who studied ballet for many years as a child and teen, I always loved to dance, so I decided to try out a belly dance class in my home city of Rochester, New York. During my first belly dance class, I connected with both my dancing inner child and my feminine adult self. It was magical. I became hooked, and I went on to take regular private lessons with my teacher Michelle, partook in her weekly group classes, and joined the studio’s dance troupe.
After I had belly danced for a couple of years, there were sometimes opportunities to dance at birthday or anniversary parties, or for special events where the organizers were in search of
belly dancers to perform. Oftentimes, those who were interesting in hiring belly dancers were in search of a certain “look.” They wanted a young, slender dancer with long hair. Although I could pass for being younger than I was, I got turned down on occasion for being “too old” to fit the look. Still, I would sometimes be acceptable looking enough to meet their standards to perform at the gigs. But here I was now with cancer, even older, bald, my skin dried out from the chemotherapy, scars on my belly, neuropathy pain from my treatments, and some of my female organs gone. Who would want to see me belly dance now?
After four rounds of chemotherapy, I finally had my surgery that I had been anticipating in great fear: the “radical” hysterectomy. Oddly, it was only two weeks after my surgery that I
spontaneously felt the urge to dance one day. I had taken a six-week break from chemotherapy to get ready for the surgery. Even though I had fresh scars on my belly, it was the best I had felt in months. I felt surprisingly liberated, as I knew most of the cancer was removed from my body. I just wanted to move that day. After practicing yoga for an hour, I grabbed one of my veils, put on my “veil dances” playlist, and started improvising in my living room. I was definitely rusty on some moves, but it didn’t matter. What was important to me in that moment was that I felt like a belly dancer again - bald, scarred, battling cancer, - it didn’t matter. I had felt more feminine and beautiful than I had in months. My soul was a dancer no matter what had happened to my body, and that is where my love of this dance came from since that day I took my first class. It was one of the first moments of “normalcy” I had felt since before my diagnosis and the COVID lockdown. It felt like I was coming home again.
From that day forward, I knew I would continue to belly dance. Since the COVID lockdown, my local teacher in Rochester had retired from teaching belly dance. Although I was originally resistant to taking on-line belly-dance classes, I decided to try an on-line veil class with Aziza of Montreal, and I was immediately hooked just like I was when I took my first in-person class eight years ago. I was amazed at the community connection there was between dancers from around the world. In my new post-cancer body with my new, much darker hair color, I felt like I was beginning a whole new life and a new chapter of belly dancing with teachers and other students from across the globe.
My body is still healing. I still have some nerve pain since my treatments. My stamina is not as high as it used to be. Statistically, my cancer has an 80% chance of returning. Although I will live my life hoping I’m in that 20%, the reality is that I don’t know how much time I have left. I do know, however, that life is too short to not belly dance. Despite having many things work against me, I will not give up, because this dance brings me so much joy. Belly dancing has been a crucial part of my healing journey.
When I look at belly dancers on social media now, I see many beautiful dancers of all ages,
shapes, races, and gender identities. I also see other women like me who are either currently
living with cancer or are survivors. They are not letting cancer steal from them their love of belly dance. These women have been a great inspiration to me. This dance is a celebration of the human soul, no matter what our age, medical condition, race, size, gender identity, or
experience level may be. Belly dancing is not about a certain “look,” image, body type or age. I have no interest in ever dancing for a gig again where I will be judged by my appearance, age, or weight to be acceptable to dance. I want to dance with the dancers who have stories to tell; the ones who have been through great obstacles and still shimmy back to this dance that speaks to their soul. They are the ones who have helped lead me back home to belly dance once again.
“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” - Marianne Williamson
Amy Warcup is a belly dancer, yoga and wellness teacher, and advanced stage ovarian cancer survivor from Rochester, NY. She currently studies belly dance with Aziza of Montreal and is enrolled in Siobhan Camille’s Dance Strong program, and previously studied under Michelle Charles in Rochester, NY.
*Belly Dance Photos by Kurt Brownell Photography