"I don't want to use the word 'blessing.' It's just so actor-y," Krysta Rodriguez says. She pauses, and we both begin laughing. Regardless of the clichés surrounding "blessing," its presence seems to be inevitable in a conversation between two cancer survivors.
After communicating through email, Rodriguez and I met for the first time at 44 and X in Hell's Kitchen. But as we compared experiences and shared stories over drinks, I felt like I had known her for years. Cancer can create that kind of bond.
A seasoned Broadway actress who has starred in First Date and The Addams Family, Rodriguez is currently in treatment for breast cancer, which was diagnosed just after her 30th birthday. She's undergone a double mastectomy, completed chemotherapy and is currently receiving radiation treatment. And, she just began rehearsals for the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening, which opens on Broadway Sept. 27.
Spring Awakening serves as a kind of homecoming for Rodriguez, who performed in the 2006 Broadway premiere as an ensemble member and understudy to several of the principal characters. In the Deaf West production, in which she also starred in Los Angeles, Rodriguez plays Ilse, a young woman who, due to tragic circumstances, is wise beyond her years. The timing of Spring Awakening's move to Broadway parallels Rodriguez's life. Listing the long-term effects of her treatments, which include reconstructive surgery, inability to breast feed and loss of sensation, she says, "A lot of things that have to do with being a young woman — those experiences get taken away."
Ilse is also denied many of the typical experiences of a young woman due to the abuse her family inflicted on her, as well as the lack of support from her community, which forces her to leave her family and live in an artists' colony.
A First Look at Deaf West's Spring Awakening With Andy Mientus and Krysta Rodriguez
"She got thrown into a very adult situation at a very young age," Rodriguez said, describing Ilse. "When she comes back, she's years above them. She's so far ahead of them in so many aspects, but she's also behind in how to be a kid. There is sort of that parallel here. I have now done everything a woman at age 50 would have done. I'm literally in menopause right now, so there's a lot of experiences I'm feeling at the same time my mom is… I've missed my 30s. There is a parallel there in having to grapple with things well beyond my years."
"I know!" I almost shout before lowering my voice, adding that I experienced similar feelings, but in my twenties, when I was diagnosed with advanced thyroid cancer.
Rodriguez and I went on to compare symptoms of menopause: hot flashes ("I had them in rehearsal today," she shares), exhaustion and weight gain, among others.
Before she was diagnosed with stage 2b ductal carcinoma, invasive and in situ, Rodriguez had never had an operation, or even Novocaine. Both her health and her youth led doctors to dismiss the idea of cancer for some time. Instead, she said, every doctor told her, "You're young… it's probably just…"
I nod enthusiastically. Diagnosed just out of college at 23, I heard the same thing in every doctor's office I visited.
"I think that particularly with breast cancer, or any sort of female-focused cancers, no one really thinks that that can happen at a young age," she continued. "Even though, now that I've been in it, I see a lot more people and hear about a lot of more people. That's why I wanted to start talking. Some friends of mine have said, 'You made me tell my doctor, I want an ultrasound. I want a mammogram. I want that checked.' Otherwise we go, 'Yeah, I'm OK. I'm young.' They don't even allow you to have a mammogram until you're 40. By then I would have been long gone."
Rodriguez was in pre-production for a show when a drop of blood appeared on her breast. After a mammogram and an ultrasound, she still didn't have a diagnosis. It wasn't until she had a biopsy and an MRI that an eight-centimeter tumor was found. Describing herself as an action-oriented person ("I was diagnosed and I was working the day I was diagnosed, so I kept working."), Rodriguez said she didn't stop to focus on sadness following her diagnosis. Instead, she asked, "What's next?" and kept the news a secret while she directed a production of A Chorus Line, a show she starred in on Broadway, at her high school. Immediately beginning fertility treatments to freeze her eggs, she would inject herself with hormones in a janitor closet to keep the students from seeing her. After A Chorus Line closed, she moved to the East Coast to shoot the movie "My Bakery in Brooklyn." It wasn't until she had to begin chemotherapy that she began sharing her diagnosis.
"I pretended nothing was wrong," she said. "The coping mechanism was pretending like I was fine and surrounding myself with people who would talk about things other than the fact that I had cancer. When chemo became a necessity, the coping mechanism became writing and talking about it and trying to sort of grapple with everything and understand and make myself feel prettier than I knew I was going to feel."
Rodriguez's devotion to feeling pretty resulted in her blog Chemo Couture, in which she shares fashion and beauty tips for cancer patients.
"It doesn't do great things to your femininity — breast cancer," she said of her decision to focus on her appearance. "You lose the use of ovaries, the function of your breasts, then you lose your actual breasts. You lose your hair. You lose your estrogen. Basically they take everything out of you that, up until that point, were like, 'This makes me a woman.' That's all gone."
She also documented her experiences living with the illness. One entry, "8 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has Cancer," especially resonated with me, and we began sharing stories of what had been said to us by people who "meant well." (My personal favorite was, "You should be grateful it's only thyroid cancer.")
"I try to have a lot of grace with people," Rodriguez said. "I try to understand and remember possibly ridiculous things I have said to them. There is a lot of downplaying of the effects of it. When somebody asks me how I'm doing or says, 'What are you up to?' or something, I'm very open about what's going on. I'm rehearsing a show, in radiation at the same time. You see their eyes start to kind of avert or they're like, 'This is more than I bargained for.' I'm like, 'Yeah, me too! Stick with me.' That hurts me a lot. When you start to see them be like, 'I didn't actually want to know the answer to this question.' That's when I'm like, 'I'm sorry that what I'm going through makes you uncomfortable!'"
"Isn't it weird how you think everything will change, but it actually doesn't?" I ask. "My job was still the same. My apartment was still the same. Everything was the same. But sometimes I just couldn't handle simple things."
Laughing, Rodriguez recalled when a piece of furniture was delivered to her apartment with a hole in it, and she burst into tears.
"I was like, 'This is such a small problem, but I can't have cancer and a hole in the couch! I can't,'" she said. "All the regular real-life problems I can't handle. Give me a surgery, give me a doctor's appointment, give me chemo — I got this. But then the hole in the couch brings me to my knees. Who can take care of this other crap for me? I can't do it." "I get it," I say, remembering how I cleaned my apartment obsessively all while going through treatment. My home had never was spotless.
Rodriguez was able to keep working, and she did — almost continuously, appearing (as a cancer patient) on the TV show "Chasing Life," as well as the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening in Los Angeles. The production dates coincided with her treatment; she finished chemotherapy the day before the first rehearsal for the musical, and she had surgery the day after the show closed. After losing her hair due to the chemotherapy, her appearance was incorporated into the musical.
"I wore a wig for the first act, and it was part of the second act," she said. "We incorporated it because that was part of my life. That's the great thing about this show. As in the past Deaf West productions, there's been sort of a conceptual hearing voice/deaf mixture; whereas in this version, the characters are deaf. If the actor is deaf, the character is deaf. If the actor is in a wheelchair, the character is in a wheelchair. The actor has cancer, the character has cancer. We've brought who we are, and that's what makes the show really special."
A musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's 1891 expressionist play of the same name, Spring Awakening depicts a group of young adults struggling with their sexual awakenings. Their turbulent emotions are communicated through rock songs by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater that include titles like "The B*tch of Living" and "Totally F*cked" as well as sensual melodies like "The Word of Your Body."
Wedekind's 1891 work that explored sex education and the consequences of poor communication was extremely controversial in its time, while the musical adaptation was first presented on Broadway in 2006 and received 11 Tony Award nominations, winning eight, including Book Score and Best Musical. It was one of the first musicals this writer saw after completing cancer treatment.
"The show is all about communication and lack of communication," Rodriguez said. "When you actually physically can't understand the person you're doing the scene with, it adds such a level. Missed connections. Just as much as it's about young kids going through puberty, it's about the need for clear communication and the downfalls of when you don't have it."
Rehearsing for a Broadway show while undergoing treatment has been stressful for Rodriguez, who said the logistical aspects, as well as the physical fatigue and issues with health insurance, have been a cause of stress. Even with two insurances, her surgeries cost $10,000. "A double mastectomy is not cheap," she said matter-of-factly. But her family and her boyfriend, whom she met while filming a movie, have supported her through everything.
"They're superheroes. They're the true heroes," she said. "I wouldn't have been able to go through this without my mom. She's the one calling the doctors if I can't. She's the one hustling the insurance stuff. She's the one who I'll call and say, 'I'm at work. I can't fill out this form.' There's absolutely no way. I wouldn't have been able. I don't cope with the stress. Everyone around me does, unfortunately for them."
Despite the stress, Rodriguez remains determinedly optimistic – but not "blessed" – when thinking about her future.
"It's a gift in a way to have one sort of goal. And it's a goal that everyone can get behind. I'm not trying to be an astronaut. I'm not trying to do something that's controversial. I'm doing one thing, and everybody is rooting for you. There is sort of a freedom to attack. You feel totally flanked by the people who are important to you. That's really exciting in a way." (Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)