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Dancing with Survivors

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Survivor Liz Brock performs last week with Benji Smith, owner of Memphis East Fred Astaire, during the Dancing With The Survivors event at Jim Keras Chevrolet.

Breast cancer survivors in the Mid-South had a new way to celebrate their zest for life this month with help from Benji and Beth Smith, owners of Memphis East Fred Astaire in Bartlett. They selected several women and taught them each a different dance to perform with Benji at the Oct. 2 Dancing with the Survivors.
The event raised money for The Pink Fund and will continue taking donations at www.crowdrise.com/DancesmithsInc/. The Pink Fund is a 501(c) (3) charitable foundation that helps breast cancer patients focus on healing, raising their families, and returning to the workplace. The Pink Fund provides short term financial aid for a brief period of treatment and recovery.
The event, held at Jim Keras Chevrolet in Memphis, gave the dancers, their families and other breast cancer survivors and supporters a bright evening that celebrated life. Benji Smith has worked with the dancers in 40 to 45-minute sessions to polish their routines so they can enjoy their new skills on the dance floor.
He enjoys seeing clients transform from being stiff and hesitant newbies to confident dancers.
“The first thing is the big smile,” he said. Some respond with a triumphant fist pump the first time they really nail a new step, while others first look surprised and then glow with quiet satisfaction.
True beginners are ideal students because they don’t have any misconceptions to unlearn, but even those who’ve learned nontraditional dance moves can be taught, he said.
“They’re doing something – they’re having a good time. That’s the big picture. But I do want them to dance the best that they can in the way they want to, and hopefully correctly.”
Some students check dancing off their bucket list after one lesson, while others can’t seem to get enough. His longest-running student has been taking lessons for about 16 years, with 11 of those taught by Benji. Some students move on to national competitions, but the majority never compete and have no desire to do so.
“It’s whatever they’re looking for,” he said.
Liz Brock: Pregnancy and breast cancer
Moms everywhere remember with a groan some of the challenges of pregnancy: Puffy feet and hands. Mysterious aches. The endless urge to nap. The baby who seems to be trying to kick his way out. Fears about the baby’s health and development. Liz Brock of Lakeland faced the joys and difficult moments of pregnancy while caring for her lively toddler son Brandon and also fighting breast cancer.
She found a lump when doing a breast self-exam in July 2013. She has an extensive history of breast cancer on both sides of her family, so she went to her doctor immediately. The tiny lump didn’t even show up on a mammogram, although it did on ultrasound. The doctor was not worried, but she pushed to get a biopsy.
It was ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), stage 0. Then two weeks later, she found out that she was pregnant.
“That posed an interesting course of action,” Brock said. “The doctors at that point expected I would terminate the pregnancy, and I told them that was not an option. I was going to have this baby, and they needed to find a way around it.”
Because of the pregnancy, they delayed her lumpectomy to remove the cancer for around three months, until she was 16 weeks along. They removed it entirely, but the cancer had already progressed to stage 1. She went through four chemotherapy treatments over three months, less than most cancer patients have but limited to protect the baby, she said.
Throughout her pregnancy, she gained only 23 pounds and focused on her health, eating well and trying to exercise.
“Physically, I felt fantastic,” she said. “I know that just doesn’t even sound possible.”
She credits her pregnancy with how she weathered chemotherapy better than most – losing her hair but not feeling nausea or fatigue. “I think my body fought really hard against the chemo.”
Then her daughter was born April 11, “fat and happy and healthy,” Brock said.
“Emotionally, I don’t think I suffered emotionally until she was actually here,” she said. “I was just trying to stay so positive and focused and so strong until she got here, and then it just hit me like a freight train.”
With support from her mother and her husband, Jason, she bounced back and now feels stronger for the experience.
“My motto is, ‘Find the silver lining in everything,’” she said. “When you have cancer, you have to try to find the purpose behind it all.”
She uses what she has learned to reach out to others and speak to women. She tells women they must take responsibility and advocate for their own health, just as she did when she insisted on a biopsy for the small, innocuous lump in her breast.
For her best chances at survival, she faced either radiation or a double mastectomy. After research on the long-term effects of radiation, along with diligent prayer and long talks with her husband, she chose the surgery with immediate reconstruction in June.
The difficult decision was the right one for her – tests showed cancer in some of the breast tissue removed.
“My chances of survival are excellent, but the problem with the type I had – triple negative – is that it can come back anywhere … not just limited to the breast.”
That means monitoring, blood work twice a year, and an immediate doctor’s visit for any recurring and persistent pain.
“If I can make it three years without any recurrence, the percent goes down drastically,” Brock said. “And each year following that, the percentage goes down. It’s sort of like we’re on pins and needles for three years.
Now she’s happy and grateful to be a survivor in remission.
“I’ve just been blessed with so many wonderful opportunities because of the cancer,” Brock said.”
She is a former high school cheerleader with no formal dance training, and she loved learning the rumba for her stint at Dancing with the Survivors. Her instructor said she learned like a natural. Brock said she’s grateful to the Bartlett Fred Astaire dancing studio for hosting the event.
“I’ve had a blast, to say the least – it’s been a joy, dancing with Benji,” she said. “…They make you feel like you know what you’re doing, when they do all the work.”
Judy Williams: Caring for her daughter
One Bartlett mother has come through her only child’s breast cancer diagnosis with a stronger relationship and a determination to help others survive the same disease.
Her daughter, Melissa Williams, was diagnosed at age 40 with stage 3 breast cancer on Dec. 13, 2013.
“It all happened so fast,” Williams said. “They determined that hers was pretty advanced, pretty serious.”
By the time it was detected, the cancer had already spread to 13 lymph nodes. She underwent a double mastectomy in January, started five months of chemo in February and completed six weeks of radiation just last month. Williams said her daughter is a strong person who sailed through all the treatments. She lost her hair and wore a wig, then threw away the wig and celebrated her baldness. She is currently in remission.
The family members bonded in their grief and in their determination to fight this disease, but the diagnosis took their breath away at first.
“The first month, we were in total, total shock,” Williams said. “Her dad and I, we couldn’t even look at each other without crying. We couldn’t even hardly talk about it, because it was such a shock. My first thought was, ‘Why not me, instead of her? Not my little girl – who was 40 at the time. That was so very, very hard to deal with. But I knew from that moment that it wouldn’t just be her journey – it would be mine, right there with her. Every second, every minute, every treatment, every doctor visit, I was with her.”
She continued, “And it’s like a sisterhood with these people. When you go to the West Clinic and you meet everyone, you become like a family with everyone.”
Williams has become a strong activist in the cancer fund-raising community, but she was surprised when a friend at Wings Cancer Foundation suggested that Williams participate in Dancing with the Survivors on behalf of her daughter.
“My first thought was, “Me? I can’t dance a lick,” she said, laughing. Then Williams heard that it would benefit The Pink Fund. “So that took my heart there. I went, ‘All right, I will try anything once.’”
A non-dancer before the lessons, Williams said the training has perked up her confidence. “At first I was so nervous, but Benji has put me at so ease.”
Her daughter wasn’t completely surprised that her playful mother was up for the challenge of learning the cha-cha and performing it in public.
Williams said about her daughter, “When she talks about it, she just gets a smile on her face. And she tells me that she’s so proud that I’m doing this. And I’m doing it for all the women. Because this really made me get that special place in my heart for all breast cancer survivors.”
Polly Speed: diagnosed while on vacation
About five years ago, Polly Speed was a former police officer one year into retirement and enjoying her newly relaxed schedule. She went for a routine mammogram and then headed to Florida for a sunny vacation with her husband. While they were still there, she got the news that the test showed a problem.
“I just kept it to myself,” she said, not wanting to cast a shadow over the vacation for everyone. “I thought it might be a shadow or something – I had had one like that before. On the way home, I decided to break down and tell my husband I had to go, but I didn’t want him to worry.”
She went through another mammogram and biopsy, followed by a lumpectomy for the tumor and removal of one lymph node, which turned out to be negative for cancer.
Her diagnosis was for two types of cancer, which was alarming in itself, but particularly so as her insurance was about to expire. She was a new retiree still on COBRA (a temporary continuation of healthcare, offered under the Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act). To remain covered, she bought a very expensive high-risk insurance policy.
She had to take six chemotherapy sessions plus a year of Herceptin, a medicine for aggressive HER2 breast cancer, which tends to grow and spread quickly. Her treatment also included 17 sessions of radiation and another year of chemo.
“I did the whole thing – lost my hair and the whole bit,” she said.
The diagnosis and powerful medical treatments left her reeling.
“Right at the beginning when I first sat down, I was devastated,” Speed said. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is the end.’”
Her reaction was to shut down and become isolated, which was very unusual for her. She posted a notice on Facebook that anyone who had questions should call her husband. People called, and she didn’t want to talk to them.
Fortunately, her spirits rose as her strength returned. She said her husband was her rock who kept her steady during her treatment and recovery, and she thought of him when she chose the song for her participation in Dancing with the Survivors: “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” by Martina McBride.
She was hesitant when Smith first interviewed her for participation in the event.
“I thought, ‘I’m short, stocky and 62 – he’s not going to want me to dance. I’m not dainty and graceful. But he liked me, and he said he wanted somebody with a little spunk.”
To her surprise, she loved the lessons as she learned to swing dance.
“Every time I go for a lesson, I’m, ‘Oh my gosh, I should have done this a long time ago!’ I’m so excited about it.”
She recently turned 63 and has remained healthy to date. Speed said, “I feel like a spring chicken.”

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