What is every young performer’s dream? To become a professional and get paid to do what they love so much. Whichever field in the performing arts you’ve chosen — dancing, singing, acting, or sometimes doing it all — each of us who pursue a career in the arts just wants to earn a living from their craft. Tiffany O’Connor did just that. She was one of those who was lucky enough to land a contract before even graduating from her pre-professional training.
From the start, O’Connor hit the ground running, but then it all came to a grinding halt. Stopped by the big C – cancer. Not everyone wants to talk about it, but everybody knows someone in and around their world who has been affected by it. Thankfully, O’Connor’s battle with cancer (in her case, leukemia) is one of those of overcoming the battle. She fought and won and made her way back, not just in life but also back on to the stage, and she and continues to live her best life on and off stage.
O’Connor has generously shared her journey with Dance Informa, and it is one of not giving up on life but also dreaming and increasing her capacity along the way. Be encouraged whereever you are in life by her strong mindset, tenacity and dedication. There are quite a few life lessons that you can absorb to enrich your everyday life, not just dancing.
Where were you at in life when you received your diagnosis?
“I was 22! I had graduated from fulltime at ED5 International and went straight into my first contract at Universal Studios (Japan) and thought I was going to conquer the world. I went to New York for three months for a summer intensive with Circle in the Square. Then I moved to London, but ended up back in New York. I thought, ‘I’m going to live here, settle in and get the visa.’ I’m sure like any other 22-year-old would think. I was hitting the end of another three-month tourist visa. So far, I’d been living with friends, settling in or at least starting to get my head around how to make it work and had just found an apartment, and it was three days after moving in when I found out.”
What was the process from diagnosis to treatment?
“Basically, it took four doctors to figure out what it was because it started with a sore throat. Thankfully, I had amazing people in my life who kept pestering me to find out what it really was. I was really tired; friends kept saying just get it checked out. And then because I didn’t have travel insurance, I had a friend who told me about a free hospital, where they gave me antibiotics, and then a second doctor saw me in his lunch break as a favour. Then I decided to go to the emergency room because it just kept coming and going. And that doctor looked at me for five minutes and was like, ‘You’re fine.’ By that point, I was so frustrated and was in tears, so I called my friend who had said, ‘Call me anytime you need me!’, and he said, ‘I’m actually at my doctor’s office right now.’ And that doctor said they would see me, another favour. So, I headed up to the Upper West Side to see him, and he said, ‘Let’s just do a blood test so we can figure it out,’ because he couldn’t see anything either. As far as any doctor was concerned, I was perfectly healthy. I ended up in tears. I couldn’t swallow, I couldn’t talk, and I had a severe sore throat. About a week later, that doctor called my friend and he came running over to my apartment and said, ‘Pack a bag. We are going straight to the hospital! The doctors have to tell you as far as side effects and medication because legally I can’t tell you.’ So later, I found out I had three weeks to live!”
So, did they send you home to Australia for treatment?
“I asked if I could go home. Once I was in the hospital,they said, ‘You’re going to the 10th floor, which was the leukemia ward, and we are going to start treatment tomorrow. I was freaking out, first of all, generally, and then, chemotherapy? You only know so much about that! So, I was petrified about it all and just asked, ‘Can I go home?’ They said they couldn’t legally let me leave because my life was on the line. So, I was stuck there for a month getting chemotherapy.”
Because everything happened so fast, how much did you know/not know about what was ahead for you?
“About a week later, the doctors were able to have a better idea about how I was responding, so my doctor explained that I wouldn’t be going home until I was healthy enough to fly, and obviously, she didn’t know how long that would take, or that the entire treatment would take five years! That was the biggest thing that literally knocked me out of my socks. I was devastated that I’d just started a new life and I had this brilliant plan to stay in New York and fulfil my dreams, and it felt like a jail sentence basically.”
Did it end up taking the full five years to recover?
“No! Just three years, and then they continue check-ups for up to five years. But because I was busting out to get out of there, my doctor gave me permission to move. I took a Universal Studios Singapore contract at the three-year mark. There is a biopsy that they do to clear you at five years — they drill through your back bone and test your bone marrow, and they give you the all clear and then you’re in remission, but I’d already experienced enough! I refused to do it! I knew I was in remission and never doubted it for a second! My mind and my choice was to be cancer-free from day one, so I didn’t need to hear it from a doctor.”
Your first job back was for Universal Studios, and what followed after that?
“Yes, Universal Studios in Singapore, then a musical production Light Seeker for Resorts World Sentosa, then another six months at Singapore Universal, and then I flew to Miami and did back-to-back ship contracts. Then I flew home via Vegas, where I auditioned for Baz and got the Baz call a few weeks later.”
Did going back to work, or just back to normal again, feel different?
“I definitely hit the ground running! But, no! Something that was really interesting to me was that the doctors do not prepare you for the following years. They deal with the then and there, they tell you all the side effects, all the drugs you’re taking and everything that is going to happen to your body then and there. But they don’t send you off and prepare you for life after. I know that might sound a bit dramatic, but there’s just so much that comes with it. Thankfully, there are so many great support groups and foundations that are trying to help patients. But because I just soldiered on with life as if nothing happened, I’ve definitely had to be on my own journey and discover how to adjust back to normal life.”
Post-remission, what did your battle teach you mentally and physically?
“Definitely physically, I can still say that today, with every single show, the problems I have physically is my driving force. Like every show is a reward. Just like anyone does at the gym, you know like your trying to get through a certain amount of reps. That’s the type of reward I feel through a show, so that’s been the real driving force in proving my health to myself. I would look around and see so many people getting sick or injured, and I could just stand there and say, ‘I am solid,’ despite what the doctors say and the damage left behind. My lungs take half the amount of oxygen they used to, my bones are weaker than they used to be, all of my organs are damaged. There’s just so much that you’re left behind with! I feel like every show and just my general health and fitness is the best reminder of what I’ve been through and what I can get through! Nothing is going to phase me now!”
You must be so strong mentally now.
“Yeah, I mean it’s up and down; no one’s perfect! But in 10 years, you definitely sway back and forth, but you’ve just got to try your best and remind yourself. I drowned myself in knowledge about the mind, the body and the spirit and what you’re actually capable of doing. I watched a lot of documentaries, believe me! So, it’s really challenging to be a healthy, normal person and also accept that everyone is on their own journey and have their own amount of knowledge. So, I’m very selective with conversations that I have, and trying to adjust back to normal society was the biggest challenge. Definitely the biggest thing I learnt for myself was with emotion! Like the result from emotions, I literally could see it on the paperwork. Like when I was upset about something, my blood count would go down and I could 100 percent see that my body would respond to it. Ten years later, it is still really challenging.
Generally, if I can say anything – dance is the strength! That’s the strength I learnt! Like when I was training at ED5, being under the guidance of William Forsythe, if you know how he trains, I learnt so much about my mental ability and then, as a result, my physical strength. So I just applied that when I got sick because it was ED5, Universal then the illness. Had I not danced and then chucked myself in a course like that, I don’t know that I’d have been prepared for it or if I would’ve had the knowledge of how powerful my mind was.”
So, there seems like a definite parallel between your training and you fighting the illness?
“Yes! Ask an athlete; it’s in your mind! When you set the intention, it’s the driving force to make it happen physically; it’s possible. Watch the Olympics! The human body is amazing. I definitely have to give it to that!”
Did you still keep returning to the USA/New York as your goal?
“Yes, after wrapping up on the ship, I went through the US on the way back home to Australia. I did a week in Vegas, and 10 days in LA. There was only one audition on (Baz Lurhmann show), and I just went for myself, just self-healing and knowing I’ve got this in me. I literally just did it for fun, and when I got back home, I received the call that they were happy to hire me, sponsor me and for me to be part of an equity show, and that ended up being the best show in Vegas for two years! So, it was the most unbelievable blessing, and it still blows my mind! And that audition happened to be walkable from my hotel! And I love telling people this because I was the only Aussie/non-citizen at the audition, and the show was based on all of Baz Luhrmann’s movies. Then I was able move back to New York when I landed Legally Blonde and end up doing a US national tour.
Taking each job has helped me, especially when it comes to being able to get the visa. If anyone knows anything about getting the O1 Visa, it takes a lot of jobs and a lot of work with a lawyer. All the jobs in Singapore and on the cruise ships were with good reason, and that all went toward getting the visa, which I did get. “
What advice would you offer to another dancer who may face a similar circumstance to you?
“First of all, be your own doctor – know yourself, know your body, become friends with your body. That was the biggest part of my journey, separating myself from my body and treating it like a friend and giving it love and respect. And that can even be applied to just being a dancer; you have to be your body’s friend and do right by it because it’s going to get you through everything off stage and on stage. It doesn’t just end when you finish your dance training; that body is going to be with you till the day you die! So, love it like you would love your best friend.
Also, I always think about auditions, just how much this all changed for me, and I feel like the result is there since I’ve never stopped working. Because I do it all for myself now; it’s not selfish at all. It’s purely self-love and proving that I’m able and treating the shows as my little guide of how I’m doing and how I can do better. And not focussing on what doesn’t really matter, which is people’s opinions or judgement and whoever’s on the audition panel. Just do it for yourself, love yourself for it, and do your best. It is as simple as it needs to be. I feel like people recognise when you’re happy doing what you are doing! Self-love and self-respect!”
By Dolce Fisher of Dance Informa.