“I need to stand here and pace,” Heather tells her doctor. “This is a life‑changing thing.” She has just received devastating news: she has breast cancer. This diagnosis seems impossible. Heather is a young woman, an actress who plays “25 to 35 years old” in casting breakdowns. She considers herself to be very healthy; she’s a vegan and a marathon runner. Despite all of these factors, Dr. Fates tries to sit Heather down to prepare her for the marathon of her life. While Heather paces, her husband Brian takes notes about treatment options. These include surgery, either a mastectomy or a lumpectomy, followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment. Finally, there is a laundry list of medications: Taxol, Tamoxifen, and Herceptin, along with a cocktail of other potent drugs. Another major concern is the couple’s fertility; Heather and Brian want to create a family. Now they will need to schedule around Heather’s cancer treatments to freeze their embryo. Suddenly Heather is faced with a lot of life‑or‑death decisions. People say the strangest things to someone with cancer, and not everyone is helpful upon hearing Heather’s news. Cancer shows her who her real friends are: those who show up in a crisis. Two of her friends, whom she calls Peace and Harmony, show up at Heather’s door unannounced to shake her out of her doldrums. They visit her frequently at the hospital, offer her support and encouragement, and even celebrate the end of Heather’s treatment with a “Red Carpet” event. However, the friend she calls Narcissist suffers from arrested development. He doesn’t understand the changes Heather is going through, so he finds it hard to be supportive. He breezes in and out of Heather’s life, until he finally tells her that her cancer is a “downer.” Narcissist constantly complains to her about his own little dramas, for example, his thinking of leaving his girlfriend and being unable to figure out a way to break up with her. Heather Keller tells her story with brutal honesty and grace. It feels as though the audience was experiencing her real-life journey in real time, because we were privy to some of Heather’s most intimate moments. The show combines actual excerpts from her written and online journals, family photographs, and recorded videos of her treatment milestones. The video segment I found most interesting was her recording about cold cap treatment, which helps cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to save their hair. This therapy involves wearing specialized caps that are kept at extremely cold temperatures. They are usually worn before, during, and after chemotherapy. She dubs her husband Brian her “Cold Cap Nazi,” because he is so regimented about organizing the ice packs, and other essentials needed for these treatments. Besides hair loss, there are numerous other side effects brought on by chemotherapy and cancer medications. Somehow Ms. Keller finds a way to approach this subject with a bit of humor. One of the funniest moments in the show is a filmed public service announcement with a voiceover in the style of a pharmaceutical commercial. As Heather stands smiling beneath a waterfall, a voice in the background announces that “side effects may include hair loss, hot flashes, sleeplessness, headaches, diarrhea…” Heather and her family are not strangers to cancer. Her grandmother was a breast cancer survivor; Heather recalls a funny moment when she went bra shopping with her grandmother, and her grandmother’s fake boob fell out. Without missing a beat, her grandmother tucked the item back into her bra, and made a joke about the incident. This recollection is bittersweet for Heather because her grandmother passed away during her own battle with breast cancer, and she was unable to attend her funeral. Her husband Brian is also painfully familiar with cancer; he lost his mother to ovarian cancer. These losses force Heather to face her own mortality. “Is this going to kill me?” she asks her nurse. “No, dear, this is not going to kill you.” Cancer has a way of removing all control. Although Heather’s diagnosis presents her with numerous challenges, she walks away with valuable life lessons. She learns to slow down because “life is a marathon, not a sprint.” She learns that “hospitals are places of healing.” She also learns the power of connecting with her family, her friends, and others who may be facing their own personal struggles. Cancer not only forces Heather to sit down and listen to Dr. Fates. It also forces her to listen to her own body, and her inner spirit. Maybe cancer is the universe’s way of telling Heather to be here now. “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen,” said Winston Churchill. Or to quote Heather herself, “Go out into the world and spread your wings. Hug those you love and check your boobies.”
“Chemo Barbie” Written and Performed by Heather Keller Directed and Developed by Jessica Lynn Johnson November 5 at 9 PM Photo credit: courtesy of the production 2019 United Solo Theatre Festival Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street New York City
KIA STANDARD is a writer and musical theater performer, who has appeared in regional and international productions of “West Side Story,” “The King and I”, “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” She received an MA in Creative Writing/Nonfiction from The Johns Hopkins University, and has published articles and profiles for various talent magazines. Ms. Standard is currently working as a musical playwright.