"They brought me into the really nice room with the couches, and that's when I knew that the news was going to be bad. They don't bring you into the Nice-Couch Room unless they have something to tell you!" 30-year-old actress Krysta Rodriguez said lightheartedly. "I was with my mom. I actually saw the word 'Carcinoma' on my paper before she said it. It was that split second of realizing what was happening before it came out of her mouth."
This was Sept. 24, 2014. Rodriguez had just celebrated her 30th birthday at the end of July (she's a proud Leo), and a few months later she was diagnosed with stage 2B ductal carcinoma. At the time, she was directing and choreographing a production of A Chorus Line (she starred in the 2006 revival as Bebe) at her former high school, the Orange County School of the Arts.
"I got the diagnosis and went back to rehearsal and taught for four hours," she told Playbill.com by phone from the West Coast, where she's currently being treated. "I was actually really grateful for that opportunity because it was a wonderful distraction, and I had such a wonderful time working with those kids, so it gave me a very positive thing to be doing while this new event was happening in my life. But it was also really great because I was at home. I'm from Orange County — my parents still live here — so my mom was with me at every appointment, and my parents were there through the whole thing, so that helped a lot."
In an instant, her whole life changed. Up until that point, she had been healthy, and based on her genetic background (she is not positive for the BRCA1 gene, and her family doesn't have a history with breast cancer) doctors told Rodriguez that she had a one-percent chance of being diagnosed. But, in a "weird way" (and in the self-diagnosing 21st century), she thought, "At some point I'm getting cancer, right?" Doctors estimated that the tumor had been growing since she was 25. "The reason no one noticed it was because they just weren't looking for it," she explained. "No one really looks that hard when you're my age. That's sort of why I wanted to come out publically — to raise awareness for early detection at younger ages because it's very difficult. You cannot get a mammogram unless you're 40 [or] unless you have symptoms of breast cancer."
When she knew something was wrong, she went to the doctor for a biopsy and had two days in between to prepare herself for the outcome.
"I thought, 'If they do say this, I don't know how I'm going to react.' I imagined me just spacing out and not hearing anything, but I actually narrowed in completely into everything that [the doctor] was saying and got very focused on: 'Okay. What's the next step?' She stood up and said, 'Do you need a moment?' And, I said, 'No! I need no moments! What are we doing right now?' Within seconds, I was having an MRI, I was getting genetic testing done, I had all kinds of appointments set up, I had a PET scan. All things happened within that day, and I'm really thankful for that because that's the way I like to work. I don't like to sit back and not do anything about any aspect of my life. It gave me a goal and a purpose, and it was actually sort of empowering in a weird way, where I could be like, 'Okay, I have a challenge, and I need to hit it as hard as I can, as fast as I can, so I hope everyone is hanging on because I'm about to run with this thing.'
"Then, of course, that wears off, and there's tears, and there's all kinds of things that go on, but I can say that I've laughed more in the last few months at the absurdity of [some] things, especially when my mom comes with me — everyone thinks she's the patient, and they call my name, and I stand up, and everyone is so confused!"
Being diagnosed with a life-altering illness at the age of 30 seems like a lot to swallow, but Rodriguez admits that she was never one to continually ask "why." Instead, she saw the bump in the road and began to map out a new route. Reluctantly, she began chemotherapy, but started to find new ways to turn this negative into a positive.
Instead of an eight-show week at the theatre or diving head first into pilot season, she focused her efforts on looking, feeling and being fabulous. Fashion was always a passion, and she decided to turn cancer into couture. Yesterday, she launched KrystaCouture.com.
"I'm not a very public person on the Internet, but the idea came to me, and the name sort of showed up in my head one day, and I thought, 'I'm going to do this.' If I can't work in the traditional way, let's see what it's like to be a writer or a blogger," she said. "I never considered myself being a writer or thought about that, so that was really nerve-wracking as well, but I have a lot of people around me who are and who are very skilled in this, so I asked as many people as I could for advice, and I've been sitting on this for a while. As nervous as I was, I was just relieved to get it out there because hiding this huge thing in my life — I even talk about it in the first [blog entry] — [the] simple question of, 'How are you?' is such a hard thing to answer."
Getting personal is a new venture for Rodriguez, as she is not one to document her private life on social media. Her Facbeook page is private, she joined the Twitterverse when "Smash" took off and only made an Instagram account last week. But, she hopes that sharing a new side will help others dealing with a similar situation — and that they, in turn, will help her.
"Photos of me doing chemo are not the most glamorous, especially since my website is called ChemoCouture," she admitted. "There are definitely the couture moments, but I also show the very real moments, so I'm just ready to do it. I think that as much as I do [can] help as many people as possible. Already I have so many comments on the blog… It's overwhelming. It's really emotional for me because I just really feel like the younger people who have been diagnosed are an under-represented party in the cancer conversation. And, it doesn't mean that we're special. It doesn't mean that we are anything else, we're just… We're sort of new! So for me to say something about it and almost every comment being, 'I was 22 when I was diagnosed.' 'I was 34 when I was diagnosed.' 'I was 18.' 'I was 26…' It's such a wonderful feeling to know that I have a community of people who understand what this is like."
The YouTube world may know Rodriguez as the young girl who is determined to dye her hair blue (check out her performance of Joe Iconis' "Blue Hair"), but now the world will know her with blue hair as well. Facing chemotherapy meant experiencing hair loss, and although it was hard to accept at first, she's looking forward to her new look — or looks! (Rodriguez already has wigs lined up around her house and is ready to hit the red carpet in style.) "It was more heartbreaking before it actually started happening, and then once it started happening, it was less scary than I thought it was going to be," she said about losing her hair. "I have had so many supportive people. I have a lovely boyfriend who thinks I look good in anything, so that's been really nice because as much as I can walk around and be bold in life, I still want to feel attractive to the people who I want to be attractive to — that matter most in my life — so he's been a great support system. My parents have been wonderful. They're always wonderful, but they are going above and beyond. As soon as you feel safe in this arena, you feel invincible, so it's been great to get that support, and that's what's made me brave and not worry about it.
"Like I said, everything that was scary before is now exciting because I can write about it, and I can try new ways to fix it — and not just ways to make myself look exactly like I did before. I'm going to make myself look completely different. I am the Wendy Williams of cancer right now! I am just going to go for broke! I've got purple, I've got blue, I've got everything you can imagine, and I've never really been an accessory gal, so it's been really fun to open my eyes to new things and new adornments. In some ways, I feel like a queen. And, that's what I wanted to share with everybody. This is my particular interest, and maybe it wouldn't make everyone else feel good, but I don't know a woman who doesn't want to feel beautiful… When I realized that what I thought is beautiful was going to be taken away from me, I wanted to see what else beautiful was, and I'm really finding it and enjoying it a lot."
The actress was always into fashion. If it weren't for performing, she said that she might have chosen to be a buyer at a big-time department store. She loves designing, decorating and re-envisioning things. (Her family, in fact, has a small side business, in which they renovate and restore historical properties.)
"Every time they throw a side effect at me, my first thought is, 'Oh! The blog! I'll make this an entry.' And, that's been so therapeutic for me, and I hope it ends up being therapeutic for [readers]. The other day my fingernails started hurting, and my doctors were like, 'Yeah, you'll probably loose your fingernails.' Instead of being like, 'I'm sorry, I'm gonna what?!' I was like, 'Great! Fake nails! We'll go to the pharmacy right now, and I'll get some gorgeous nails, and I'll do a whole post about my nails,' so it's been really nice to have a positive way to turn every negative thing that they can throw at you."
Unfortunately, it can't be all fun and games for a cancer patient. Following filming "My Bakery in Brooklyn," a movie she landed after her diagnosis, she had to put work on hold to heal.
"I wanted to give myself permission to heal and take jobs [when] I felt like I was able to do them, but not get myself in a situation where I was taking on too much, especially when the chemo started because this is a much more all-encompassing treatment," she explained. "I feel bad a lot. And then I feel good! And then I feel bad. I just wanted to respect my body and respect that this is going to be temporary, and next year I'll come back, guns blazing with new boobs!"
The response to her Feb. 19 announcement has been nothing but positive. "Oh my gosh! [Yesterday] was crazy," she said after first picking up the phone. "It was the best day. I was hooked up to chemo for seven hours, and I just got to sit there and watch all the responses come in, and it was so wonderful."
She's looking forward to the blog taking off and is excited for the adventure. Fashionistas, dealing particularly with cancer patients, have already approached her about the new look and the road ahead. Rodriguez compared her story to the everyday struggles of an actor: "I used to say this about acting — because people would be like, 'How do you deal with jealousy or competition or rejection?' My main motto was, 'Someone always has it better, and someone always has it worse. Always. Until the rest of time.' And, it's the same thing with this situation. I have a very favorable diagnosis. There are people who don't, and there are people who do but have to go through more to achieve remission… I know women who have gone through it without chemo, and chemo is not fun. It is now, sometimes, when you put 'Couture' behind it! The actual process can be very difficult, but again, some people have more side effects than I do, so I just have been keeping that motto. There's always someone who has it worse and always someone who has it better, so just stay the course that you're on."
Despite the bitter cold in New York, she can't wait to get back to the city. Next month, she reunites with "Smash" co-stars Jeremy Jordan and Andy Mientus for a concert at 54 Below entitled This Will Be Our Year, and she is thrilled about the reunion.
"It's gonna be fun, and I have a fierce wig planned! So everyone look out!"
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)