Dancing Her Way through Bladder Cancer – Anne Doesn’t Miss a Beat

A New Hampshire native, Anne Theriault now lives in Maryland. Anne spent many years in non-traditional careers with the US Army and in the Bureau of Prisons. She deployed four times to combat zones. Anne began taking up ballroom dancing after a challenging combat tour in Iraq. “I just did it socially, and not competitively. When I found the Arthur Murray Dance Studio I decided to go ahead and dance competitively.”  Dancing was part of her plan for retirement. Unfortunately, last year she was diagnosed with a rare form of bladder cancer. While that was a big part of her life for a year, it is not defining Anne now!

“When I noticed blood in my urine, my clinic gave me prescriptions for three rounds of antibiotics. I finally made it to a urologist and had a cystoscopy. The following day I completed a CT scan and blood work. A week later I was in surgery for about three hours to have the tumor removed. The results came back from the tumor board (where doctors who are experts in cancer review and discuss treatment options for a patient). I had a sarcomatoid carcinoma. That is a rare form of bladder cancer, and it is considered the most untreatable and the most aggressive,” Anne states.

“I am fortunate that I’m here in the Baltimore area. Someone recommended I have a second opinion, if not a third opinion.” Anne went to Johns Hopkins Medicine where she met Dr. Trinity Bivalacqua and Dr. Noah Hahn. They recommended chemotherapy followed by cystectomy due to the size and aggressiveness of her tumor. “I didn’t have that much time to think.” Anne explains, “At age 57, I was not a typical bladder cancer patient. I was not male, and I am not a smoker. I didn’t have any known risk factors for bladder cancer. I had no idea what I was getting into because I had never heard of bladder cancer before. BCAN and people I spoke with from the hospital were a big help.  I had every intention of a neobladder, but could not because of the type and location of my cancer,” noted Anne. She received an ileal conduit after her cystectomy.

“The medical staff at Johns Hopkins calls me a motivated patient because I tend to continue to do everything I want to do, without slowing down too much. Having the right people in your life and the right medical staff to make things happen for you is important,” Anne laughed. When asked if having an ileal conduit slowed her down, she replied “It is amusing because everybody tries to baby you. But bladder cancer doesn’t stop me. Even after I’ve had a long round of chemotherapy, I think ‘I have to go dancing tonight.’

Dancing has been my outlet, my true network of people, and my real happy place when I was sick.  I could’ve been very depressed with some of the news that I kept getting. But two weeks after my chemotherapy ended, I was competing on the dance floor. Within six months of having the cystectomy, I competed in the most prestigious ballroom dance competition in the world.”

Blackpool, (a ballroom competition with a 93-year history in England) finally admitted Pro-Am dancers in 2017. Anne’s dance teacher brought her to England to compete. She recalls he kept reminding her, “It doesn’t matter where you place. Just think of where you were last year at this time and how challenging your life was.” Anne continues “I know a lot of people have been hesitant about taking trips or going on real adventures after having a cystectomy or having major surgery or chemo, but for me dancing motivated me to keep going.”

I just had my first year CT scan, and it was clear of cancer. Anne recalls Dr. Noah Hahn commenting, “In all the scenarios that we tried to evaluate and guess, we never would’ve predicted the outcome that you have had based on the diagnosis you had.” She credits dancing for helping her get through that stressful year with a positive outcome.

“Right now I want to give back. I go to several meetings at Johns Hopkins, and I attended my first BCAN Leadership Summit this year. I’m trying to navigate now how I’m going to fit in and give back to people.”

Anne is now out of the military (having a cystectomy no longer allows her to deploy overseas). She intends to investigate a possible connection of her bladder cancer to her military service.  “I was lucky I didn’t have to fight for health care through the military because I had federal government insurance benefits.” Her medical staff believes that exposure to uranium, petroleum and many chemicals in combat zones where she deployed may have been a risk factor for developing Anne’s bladder cancer.

Though she feels like a rookie in the bladder cancer world, Anne has information that people use. “It is very humbling to me that people come up and say, ‘You’re the first person I met that has bladder cancer and has an ileal conduit,’” notes Anne. “I didn’t realize how sick I was before all the surgeries and procedures that I had done. Now physically, I almost feel stronger, with the help of a little physical therapist of course. Her mission was to make sure that I have great movement so that I can continue to dance because that is my priority.”

“My dance community means very much to me, but so does the staff and all the workers at Johns Hopkins and BCAN.  The more information you get, the more you realize this was a dangerous situation,” reflects Anne. “After the cystectomy, I didn’t dance for one month. I feel very lucky.”

Anne’s Tango