Three-time survivor Valerie David turns cancer fear into an inspiring one-woman show.
At age 30, Valerie David received a diagnosis that scared her: stage 3 non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She was eligible for a special protocol that condensed a six-month chemotherapy regimen into just three and a half months. After completing treatment, she went into remission and subsequently received news that thrilled her: She was cured of lymphoma.
David never imagined she would face cancer again, let alone two more times. At 45, she found a lump under her armpit, in an area considered breast tissue, and testing revealed stage 2 breast cancer. “I thought, ‘Again?’ Because I had filled the cancer quota and thought this couldn’t possibly be happening,” says David, who lives in New York City. Eight months of chemotherapy and radiation plus a lumpectomy put her cancer in remission.
Four years later, chest pain prompted her to contact her oncologist. Her instincts told her it was cancer; she just didn’t know how serious. It turned out to be very serious: stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. “It was bone metastases in my chest, which is why I had the pain, and in the rib, and there was another spot under my armpit, right by the original site. It was devastating,” she says.
Many people advised David to prepare a will and obtain a power of attorney. She called a local support group but didn’t quite receive the type of help she expected. “The leader of the support group said, ‘Well, you know you have a three- to five-year life expectancy.’ I was shocked by her response,” David recalls. “I continued, ‘I haven’t gotten married yet, and I would really like to meet someone.’
She replied, ‘Well, I’m sure you’ll find someone who will appreciate the time you have left.’ She traumatized me. No one has the right to tell you how long you’re going to live and when you’re going to die.”
Rather than being fearful during her second and third bouts with the disease, she got angry. Anger, David says, is more powerful than fear.
An actress whose career started at age 6, David felt she had a story to tell. The universe sent signs that she needed to put it down on paper: After her first breast cancer, she attended writing retreats and workshops and ran the idea of writing a play by her oncologist, who encouraged her. David quit her job running the editorial department of an advertising agency so she could fully focus on writing and acting. The result became the award-winning play “The Pink Hulk: One Woman’s Journey to Find the Superhero Within,” which David wrote and stars in. The solo show portrays her cancer story through raw, honest emotion and humor and has touched audiences worldwide since 2016 with its message of hope and empowerment.
“It’s not just about cancer. It’s about fighting back from any challenge in life and living life on your terms,” David says. For example, in her play, she reenacts a 40-mile bike marathon that she was certain she would not complete, because she had finished final radiation treatments just two months earlier. But she made it all the way. “When I crossed that finish line, that was one of the greatest moments of my life, because it wasn’t about completing the marathon. It was about crossing the finish line with cancer,” David says.
Onstage, she is frank about the side effects she faced, including stiff joints, hair thinning, upset stomach and vaginal dryness. Taking ibuprofen and vitamin supplements, exercising and changing her diet helped.
Being thrown into early menopause posed a tougher challenge, robbing her of her fertility. “I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted children, to be honest, but that was my choice,” David says. “(When) the choice was taken away, it was a hard thing to deal with, but there are other options out there.”
She adds: “You are allowed to be frustrated. You are allowed to say, ‘My life is a little bit different due to these side effects.’ Sometimes it’s difficult, but then you realize, ‘Well, I’m alive and I’m still here.’ And that’s what’s most important.”
LIVING WITH GRATITUDE
David is grateful to be living with no evidence of disease from her stage 4 metastatic breast cancer and remains on a CDK4/6 inhibitor and an aromatase inhibitor, oral medications that she will take for life. The concept, she says, can be tricky to explain to family and friends who ask, “When’s treatment over?”
“It’s not,” David says. “With my other two cancer bouts, there was a beginning, a middle and an end. With meta- static breast cancer, there is a beginning, but there is no end to treatment.”
David is thankful that the metastatic disease was found and attributes it to divine intervention. “The day before the mammogram, I got this random phone call from my hospital at the time that said, ‘You’re eligible to be in a study for a mammogram with contrast because of your breast cancer history. Do you want it?’” David recalls. “It wasn’t covered by the study, and when I asked the cost, I found out it would be less than $100 out of pocket through my health insurance, so I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And that contrast mammogram revealed there was a new spot underneath my armpit that the regular mammogram did not show. That warranted the MRI and PET (positron emission tomography) scan that revealed the metastases and explained my chest pain.”
Throughout her 20 years of dealing with three cancer diagnoses, David has relied on a devoted support network of doctors, her parents and sisters and other family members and friends. She made it a priority to take someone with her to every appointment. David would email to ask for help, and she delegated duties such as cooking and doing laundry to family and friends when she didn’t have the energy to do them herself.
David meditates every morning and celebrates that her cancer no longer shows up on scans and tests. When she worries about recurrence, she copes by practicing meditation. She also keeps exercising, performing and touring, even during treatment. The morning last fall when she learned about her metastatic breast cancer, her show was opening in Portland, Oregon, but David did not let cancer stop her. She performed “The Pink Hulk” that evening and completed the show’s run.
“I’m going to live my life to the fullest. To me, being a cancer survivor means not letting anything stop you from doing what you want in life,” David says. “The other thing about being a survivor is to trust your instincts. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we strive to have the strength to deal with whatever comes our way and find that inner superhero to fight back any adversity — to Hulk out!”