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When Doctors Need Doctors: Beating Breast Cancer with Help from Beyoncé

Deborah Cohan, MD, MPH, obstetrician and gynecologist, San Francisco General Hospital and UCSF

Deborah Cohan, MD, MPH

Dr. Deborah Cohan

 

After my Stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis, people kept asking what they could do to help. In general, my needs were met—friends and family were taking me to my appointments and bringing me meals and supporting me emotionally—so instead of having them worry, I decided I’d have them dance. We’d all be connected by dancing to the same song—Beyoncé’s “Get Me Bodied.” They would send me videos, and I would watch them while recouping instead of dancing myself.

Before my double mastectomy, I asked the anesthesiologist if I could dance before the surgery. I knew it was a crazy request, but I wanted to be in a really vibrant place and have my body be receptive to surgery. He had two requests: that I not get any medication beforehand and that I not force him to dance. Most patients get medicated and go in on a gurney. I wanted to have my fully conscious self walking in there, choosing to have the surgery.

For me, this wasn’t about ignoring fear—it was about confronting fear and sorrow really directly. I was afraid of death, and once I really fully explored that—what it would look like for me to die right now and leave my two young kids—I just went there. And once I did, it was a discovery that while I had to have this experience, I was not going to die from having my breasts taken off. And then there was space for joy.

I had met the surgeon once, and I didn’t even ask if she would dance. The surgical residents, nurses—I didn’t know them before. I had no idea if they were going to dance, and I was pretty nervous about it. But they got totally into it. The day before my surgery, I had gone to my favorite dance studio with a really close friend from college. I had played the song over and over again and gotten to a really joyful place. I call it somatic imprinting: When it came back on, my body already had joy imprinted with that song.

The anesthesiologist videotaped the dancing with my phone. I didn’t think anything of it, just climbed onto the table and went to sleep. Then, when I woke up, my friend who had carried my phone said, “Your video is going viral.” I said, “What are you talking about?” My friend had posted it while I was still under. People started reposting it on Facebook, then HuffPo picked it up. That was the big turning point.

The friend who had held my phone had been with my parents in the waiting room. Instead of biting their nails there, they’d been dancing. He has a picture with them smiling. Whose parents smile when their child is getting a bilateral mastectomy?

Once the video got media attention, all these strangers started sending me videos from all over the world. Then other women started dancing before their mastectomies. And kids before their cardiac surgeries. It’s kind of a thing now, which is beautiful.

Someone told me that the video is going viral in Israel right now. It was at six million views, then seven for a while, and now eight million. It keeps having this life, which is fascinating to me. I think that in part what people are so struck by is that it’s so counterintuitive to how we think about allopathic medicine and drugs and cancer: that it has to be this scary experience, that you have to leave your personality at the door. Among other messages that I’ve gotten from people, they say that they’re craving connection with their medical team. They’re shocked at the idea of actually being able to do something that feels healing for themselves, instead of taking orders and doing what they’re told.

I’m cured now, but I had four rounds of chemo, and now I take something called tamoxifen. Throughout, I’ve done all sorts of complementary healing: qigong, acupuncture, craniosacral therapy. I take Tibetan herbs. And, of course, I dance. That’s my most potent medicine. I’ve done that throughout—even four days after the original surgery, I went to dance. I couldn’t lift my arms, but I focused on what I could do.

More Doctors' Survival Stories:
A Superhero Surgeon Brought to His Knees

After Dodging a Death Sentence, Looking for a Cure

From Pain, a New Purpose

Getting Back to Life After an Assault

For a Workaholic, the Misery of Bed Rest

Sometimes, It’s Not the Doctor Who Heals

Working Through Lung Cancer

 

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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