This article was originally published September 16, 2016.
“It was actually a year ago today that I went to the hospital with a cramp,” says actress Karen Walsh from her room at Weill-Cornell Medical Center/New York Presbyterian. That four-hour cramp was Stage IV colon cancer.
Since the day of her diagnosis in September 2015, Walsh has endured bi-monthly oncology treatments—well, not so much endured as conquered.
“I’m not much of a selfie person normally,” she says, “but on the first treatment here I was alone in the room for a second… I was like, ‘Oh I’m getting chemo, and I don’t know what this is going to be.’” So she snapped a photo, posted to Facebook and went public with her diagnosis.
Walsh invited friends to her treatments as a means of support, taking photos of her chemotherapy sessions to document her journey. “My friend Sam Pinkleton came to my fifth [session],” says Walsh. “And I said, ‘You know you’re going to have to do a picture with me,’ and he said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do a picture, we may as well make it interesting.’ A lá Sam— he can do anything, which is why I love working with him so much—he got me up on the ledge.”
“It’s one of my favorites, and that was all Sam,” Walsh smiles.
“I think, in the Karen journey, it was the first moment of: I can do this crazy thing with these photo shoots. Then it spiraled, spiraled, spiraled,” says Pinkleton, a Broadway choreographer who first worked with Walsh on Roundabout Theatre Company’s Machinal in 2014.
Over the course of the year, what began as sheer playfulness on the morning of Pinkleton’s visit turned into a year-long photo project on Instagram. Walsh invited friends, many of them actors and show people she’d worked with over the years, to join her chemotherapy sessions as her in-person support for the day. With Pinkleton’s mindset of fun and creativity, she continued to snap photos, but in costume. From her superhero-themed shot with Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo (the two had worked on an early developmental lab of the upcoming Amelie) to the Christmas photo with Blythe Danner and Carla Gugino, Walsh created a world in which cancer and chemo weren’t shrouded in despair.
Walsh’s Instagram—papered with photos of her hooked up to an IV while donning silly wigs and her best death stare to cancer—became a mural of strength, lightheartedness and inspiration.
“The pictures became popular, and I started getting a lot of feedback from a lot of people I didn’t know saying, ‘So-and-so shared this picture; it meant a lot to my family, it meant a lot to my mother, to me…’” Walsh recalls. “My doctor, Dr. Ruggiero, said, ‘This is doing something for the greater good. This is actually helping other people see that it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, and it doesn’t have to be something that means … you’re going to be alone.’ You can do what you want with your time and your life and make these choices.”
“A lot of times when people are diagnosed with cancer, it can cause you to go inward and feel alone and isolated,” says Marin Mazzie, a three-time Tony nominee who has been very public about her own cancer diagnosis. “I think this is a very encouraging idea of community and sharing—very hopeful.”
Which is why, on the day of her one-year anniversary, Walsh commemorated the occasion with a special photo: a snap of theatre professionals who have all been diagnosed with cancer.
Ashley Landay, an agent at KMR; Christina Rouner, an actress previously seen in Coram Boy; Charlie Socarides, an actor seen in Sons of the Prophet; Javier Muñoz, currently playing the title role in Hamilton on Broadway; and Mazzie joined Walsh for an ultra-glam photo shoot. Dressed in tuxedos and gowns and made up by professionals from GlamSquad, it felt more like the Tonys red carpet than a hospital oncology wing.
Elegant and chic, the actors proved that even though it’s a disease, cancer doesn’t equal ugly.
As they posed for the photos, hands in suit pockets, long limbs draped, it was easy to forget that Walsh was in-treatment, literally attached to an intravenous drip. “How you doin’ babe?” Rouner asked Walsh. Clearly, Rouner hadn’t forgotten.
Walsh felt a difference between this photo shoot and her others. “I just had Charlie and Marin in with the doctors with me,” says Karen, “and it was an interesting experience for me, because they have been through this. They’ve been in this room; they’ve been in this conversation.”
A next level of camaraderie became apparent, built on shared experiences: costumes and chemotherapy. Emotion lifted the room, knowing all of these theatre people had done battle with the Big C and were standing tall—in heels. “I’m not the biggest fan of support group therapy stuff, but I found that [during my treatment] it was important to be around other people who understood, where you didn’t have to explain as much as you usually have to do to others,” says Muñoz. “So that’s kind of what it feels like right now. I can just look at everybody and just know that they know. We just all know, and that’s comforting.”
Muñoz came onboard after Soo, his former Hamilton castmate, reached out to ask if he’d like to participate. The message of Walsh’s openness resonated with Muñoz. “I feel like we spend so much time hiding the things that make us vulnerable,” he says. “We can’t appear to be weak, or we can’t appear to be flawed in any way in our world. And when it comes to personal health, the person who’s going through the health challenge needs support and needs love and needs to know that they’re still of value. What helps break through stigma and break through silence surrounding health challenges is transparency.”
Still, there is something unique about these theatre people—who spend their lives in the spotlight, whose job is to appear as art—standing up to cancer in this way.
“We’ve got both survivors and fighters in the room,” Walsh says. “But we’re working. All of us are working, we’re still living our lives.”
As she continues maintenance treatment, Walsh, herself, is currently the standby for Mary-Louise Parker in Heisenberg on Broadway and an ambassador for the American Cancer Society (and soon to be one of their Mothers of the Year).
“Hopefully we’ll see these guys as titans and heroes, which they are,” says Pinkleton. “I mean, Javi is going to do two shows at Hamilton today.” Night after night, we stand and applaud these actors for their work, and rightfully so, but so often we don’t know what’s behind the curtain. The slog after the bow. That’s worth cheering.
“What I really like celebrating is the magic of the theatre community,” says Walsh. “People come together. People rally. People are there for each other. And I want everyone to get screened. But, there’s this sort of love that comes from what we all do and the community that we find in the work we do.” At the end of the day, it seems that what makes them show people is that—particularly when the going gets rough—they show up.
View the fully gallery of the photo shoot here:
Check out the American Cancer Society’s 80% by 2018 campaign, a nationwide public health effort by the ACS to get 80 percent of the eligible population screened by the year 2018.
Karen Walsh passed away May 29, 2017. She leaves behind her husband,Todd, and her two children. Playbill remembers her for her contribution to theatre, including the Broadway productions of Heisenberg, Machinal, The Road to Mecca, Other Desert Cities, and more, but most importantly her bright light, never-ending optimism, and contagious spirit that energized all around her and continues to inspire hope.