by Stephanie Bissonnette
Work broke up with me. My greatest nightmare. The one thing I thought could never leave me. Let’s face it, as actors, employment is the vacation. When you’re not “working,” you tend to work ten times harder. You teach in New Jersey and Long Island, you work study for discounted dance classes, you volunteer your time to get a chance to perform, you audition relentlessly… and you have two other jobs.
I’m also the girl who had a low key panic attack when she had to miss her first five shows due to laryngitis in November. Over a year since starting this marathon in Washington D.C., I’ve always had a rather intimate relationship with work, but the past three months have been the ultimate test. What does a workaholic do when the only work to be done is healing?
Finding out I had a brain tumor was the first blow. I had suspected something was off, but whatever it was felt so minor. I have been training 23 years to get on my leg. Luckily, that training saved my life. Dancers are so hyper aware of our bodies. To all of the dancers out there, trust your gut. You know when something’s just a minor ailment or if it’s something that needs to be addressed. So many doctors looked at me, evaluated me, and gave me a passing grade. I would pass all their physical tests, then insist that these weren’t an accurate representation of what I was feeling.
I have been trained to autocorrect any misstep, any imbalance, to “get on my leg.” I kept seeing doctors, insisting on more scans. Thank God I trusted my body. The news was a blow, but somehow I already knew something was there. Now, I wanted a plan of attack. A way to fix it. Take the note, get back on my leg, and get back to work. Steph Bizz doesn’t quit. I didn’t survive the Cats open call and being non-eq for four years to let this thing in my head tear away everything I had worked endlessly to achieve. My dream.
Surgery was the endgame, and I truly was ready to go. Don’t get me wrong, I was terrified of the rehab, a fear of waking up and not being able to walk, let alone dance. However, the idea of a little physical hard work has never frightened me. If it did, I would have quit three years ago. I just wanted it to happen as soon as possible. Anything to wake up from the nightmare.
The first 48 hours after surgery were a pain and exhaustion I had never felt in my life. The tests, the prodding, the discomfort. No sleep. No food. Constantly fasting for the next scan or check up. Lumbar punctures. Three-hour MRIs. I’ll save those details for the memoir.
When I finally made it to the inpatient physical therapy almost a week post-surgery, I was weak and tired, but ready to get to work. Ready to train. My PTs were so impressed with my strength and progress. I looked around at so many patients struggling to sit up, to stand, to walk up stairs. I felt ungrateful for being so upset with my progress. That’s what I get for dancing on tables, kicking my face, and doing aerials for a living. This experience has definitely reignited how thankful I am to just have a functioning body. My biggest concerns prior were my big boobs, my curves and the endless yearning to be taller, thinner and leaner. Now I was just thankful to walk outside.
Then, the final blow came. It was cancerous. The tumor was cancerous. I would need treatments. Extending my timeline into an indeterminable length. The TKO. The response that I never wanted to hear.
“We don’t know when you’ll be able to go back to work.”
The breath left my body and I couldn’t even speak. My parents were the incredible pillars of strength they’ve always been my whole life. When I would call and complain about not getting seen or cry when I would get so close to getting the job, they ensured me that if anyone could do it, I could. I cried angry tears through PT, then went back to my room and began to break the news to my musical family. I feel I can’t emphasize this enough. The hardest part about having cancer is truly saying it over and over and over again as you tell the people who matter. Seeing their faces as they process the information then immediately shift to become the shoulder for you to lean on. Selfless. Hopeful. When you feel nothing but dread.
The good news you ask? I have less than ten treatments left, which feels like a weight lifted. Is the work done? Not even close. The physical therapy will intensify to get me back in shape and hopefully back into the show soon. The best part? Reconnecting with family and friends. Learning to heal deeply. To trust your body. To enjoy just a laugh, a movie, or a puzzle with a friend and have that be enough. The worst part? Missing my musical family, missing debuts, missing departures. We’re a family. We made this incredible show together. We’ve been stuck in rooms together for two years. The memories are too many to count.
In our careers, we’re always looking for the next success, the next gig, and unfortunately, the next flashy Instagram post. Are we our résumé? Who are we outside of our craft? I’ve learned I’m loved. I’m strong, but I’m vulnerable. I’m independent but at times so needy, even if I pretend I’m not. I’m surrounded with support but I can be so lonely. I’m strong, but I can be weak. I’m a daughter, a sister, a friend, a colleague, a teacher. I’m still a New Yorker through and through. A good night’s sleep can cure a lot. Puzzles and Netflix 4 life. The best thing I’ve learned? The best connections you make in life are with humans, not jobs. Surrounding myself with good people who lift me up in my darkest hour, who believe when I can’t, who insist when my faith is shaken. The family and friends who are there unconditionally, always. Whether you are unemployed doing puzzles at your kitchen table or taking a bow on Broadway.