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How A Leukemia Patient Uses Dance To Help Fight Her Cancer How A Leukemia Patient Uses Dance To Help Fight Her Cancer
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Pirouetting Past Childhood Cancer

Insights & Ideas Team •  December 30, 2015 | Inspiring Stories

A decade ago, about this time of year, Peyton Richardson walked into a theater in Texas with her parents and sat quietly in awe as she watched The Nutcracker. At just three years old, her love affair with ballet was born.

One year ago, right about this time, Peyton walked into a hospital with her parents. The awe on their faces had changed. This time they were in awe of the life-changing battle that lay before them.

Peyton, now 13, has been battling leukemia for nearly a year. A year into her battle she keeps an interesting perspective. She argues, “Dancing is harder than fighting cancer.”

Take Nothing for Granted

Peyton’s mom, Carrie, says her daughter’s passion for dance was sparked when the family saw that performance of The Nutcracker all those years ago: “I remember a three-year-old sitting still for the entire ballet. The whole thing mesmerized her.”

Peyton remembers it too. “I was just in awe of all of the dancers.”

Within days, Peyton was signed up for ballet classes at her local dance studio in Sugar Land, Texas. She remembers the rush she got watching that first performance. Peyton says she gets it again each time she waits in the wings to perform. She says it’s a feeling she never takes for granted.

The Day Life Changed

Peyton wrapped up dancing in her local performances of The Nutcracker and went back to dance class at the start of 2015, but something was off. “I would climb the stairs at school with my 15-pound backpack. I dreaded it every day because my legs could barely hold me. I was like, this is weird, I’ve never had this much trouble climbing the stairs before.”

Teachers noticed the weight loss. Her dance coach noticed fatigue. But Peyton and her parents at first brushed it off. They were sure she was a busy girl recovering from a busy holiday schedule. Finally, Peyton could not lift her leg an inch off the ground at dance class. Carrie can remember the exact words Peyton’s pediatrician said next: “Carrie, something is wrong.”

Carrie said, “I know.”

He then said, “I’m sending you to the hospital for blood work.” He asked, ”Do you know what I am talking about?”

Carrie said, "Leukemia?” He said, “Yes.”

“Everyone was in complete shock,” says Carrie.

A New Normal

When the Richardsons walked Peyton into Texas Children’s Hospital and were placed into a room, a nurse wrote a note on a white board. It read: “Get well and go home.” Peyton was put through a battery of blood tests, and in the morning an oncologist told the family that Peyton was being admitted. She did indeed have leukemia. Shortly afterward, the nurse came in and erased “go home" from the white board.

“That was hard to see,” says Carrie. “So that’s how we found out. We went from Nutcracker and dancing beautifully to 'your child has leukemia.'”

Dancing Her Way Through It

Peyton’s oncologist, Dr. ZoAnn Dreyer, was immediately drawn to this tiny ballerina. “Peyton has this incredibly magnetic personality.” But Dr. Dreyer knew that to keep Peyton’s eyes shining bright, they were going to have to work to get her back to dance.

“Ballet is what keeps her heart going and gives her the fight to fight the leukemia. So that the big battle is how long can you stay on your toes, and the smaller battle is leukemia. Being successful in dance gives her the power to be successful over her leukemia.”

Peyton missed about two months of dancing before getting the OK to head back into the studio. Peyton’s best medicine really was dance.

Carrie describes days Peyton would finish treatment at the hospital but still plead to go to class.

“At dance I can be normal and forget about everything. That’s why I love going,” Peyton says.

Lace Up Those Toe Shoes

Before she got sick, Peyton was in a dance studio rehearsing six days a week. Her return has been more measured.

Peyton describes going to class while in the middle of a chemo regimen and only being able to watch. “I used to think it’d be nice to sit out a bit because you’re hot and sweaty and tired. But it was boring! I don’t think I will ever want to sit out again.”

Her return has been slow, working back up to moves she used to be able to do or the stamina she used to have, but she wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“I love that rush of butterflies when you’re standing in the wings and you’re just about to go on stage. All you can think about is dancing like you’ve never danced before.”

A Dream in Flowers

Peyton’s oncologist encouraged her to enter a contest for children with cancer, sponsored by Northwestern Mutual. The winner would have his or her “greatest adventure” turned into a float in the 2016 Rose Parade® presented by Honda in Pasadena, California. Peyton’s submission video won the hearts of the selection team. This New Year’s Day, she and her parents will ride atop a show-stopping float that depicts Peyton’s great adventure of touring the most famous ballet companies in the world and learning from the principal dancer at each.

When Peyton discovered she won, she was in shock. “It took about two days for it to really sink in because I don’t really win a lot of things. It’s really cool.”

Unintended Advocates

Carrie says that a year into Peyton’s fight, their family has become advocates for a cause they wish they knew nothing about. “It took everybody by surprise. Our neighbors look at their children and say, 'That could’ve been my child.' It can happen to anybody. Cancer doesn’t care.”

That’s why the Richardson family is sharing their story, in hopes of inspiring others to advocate for the fight, too.

For her part, Peyton isn’t backing down from her declaration. “When you dance, there are about 100 things going through your mind to make it look perfect. I know it looks easy, but it’s not—and that’s the tricky part, to make it look easy and beautiful. Ballet is way harder (than fighting cancer), by a lot.”

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