Valerie David: I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Find the best hospital to treat your cancer and the best team of doctors who will listen to you. After 20 years of treatment at a cancer hospital, I felt it was best for me to reboot with a new team and a new hospital. I had grown uncomfortable with the level of care I was receiving and the feeling I was not being listened to. This turned out to be one of my best decisions. Also, you want a doctor who will believe in your survivorship. My nurse overheard my lymphoma doctor say, “I am not worried about Valerie, she’ll be fine.”
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Valerie David.
Valerie David is a three-time cancer survivor, first diagnosed and treated for Stage III Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1999 and Stage II breast cancer in 2014/2015. In 2018, Valerie was re-diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, which she beat only five months later against all odds. Today, there remains no evidence of disease. Valerie turned her adversity into art by writing and performing in her award-winning, one-person show, The Pink Hulk: One Woman’s Journey to Find the Superhero Within, which debuted in 2016. Since then, Valerie has been inspiring both domestic and international audiences, uplifting them with her motivational, empowering story to conquer cancer and crush the obstacles in her path.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
I have always been a gregarious kid right from the start — from birth! When I was 4 years old — I don’t even remember this — my mom said I would stand in front of the TV and start squealing, “Help, help! Get me out! I’m stuck in the TV!” and soon realized that I never wanted to leave the TV, movie theater, or theater, for that matter.
I remember my first taste of mini-fame. I was cast in the Three Little Pigs in first grade when I was 6 years old. I was supposed to be one of the main pigs, but I was demoted. Still, I was determined to be onstage! A role was created for me as the fourth little pig, and I was onstage dancing and singing in this coveted role. I knew then that I wanted to pursue being in the arts. I have also always been fascinated by my family history. My father and his family fled Iraq in 1941 to escape religious persecution and a vicious pogrom known as “The Farhud.” They left that night with only what they could carry, eventually made their way to America in 1947, and finally settled in New York. When I began collecting and filming their stories, it helped me find strength and courage through my cancer battles. I credit their survival for my survival. In addition to my Pink Hulk one-person show, I created an additional one-person show, Baggage from BaghDAD, about my father’s journey and how it influenced who I am today.
I grew up in Virginia Beach, Va. and graduated from James Madison University. Four years later, I moved to Manhattan and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where I graduated in 1996. I’ve been a New Yorker ever since, following my dream career in film, TV, and theater.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“And so for all of you out there, you have a superhero within you, too” — quote from my show
In October 2018, as I was entering the theater for a tech rehearsal the day my Pink Hulk solo show was opening in Portland, Ore., my cell phone rang. From the caller ID, I knew it was my oncologist. Though I was expecting biopsy results, I was praying I would not find out until after The Pink Hulk run was over, and certainly not the day the show was opening. Afraid, I reluctantly answered it. And indeed, it was my doctor telling me I had Stage IV metastatic breast cancer that had spread to my bones. The superhero within me had to be reactivated to fight now a third battle with cancer — this time the most serious and the one that truly caused me to question my mortality.
For 24 years now, I have dealt with cancer, and keep that inner superhero alive. And determined not to give up then, I performed the show and finished the run. I continued to perform it in other cities. I was put on an oral cancer treatment, and the superhero within was now supercharged and fighting back. Five months later, on April 1 (no fooling!), the PET scan revealed no evidence of disease — no trace of cancer. The medication had worked.
So the quote from my show of never forgetting that you have a superhero inside you was my life’s lesson to never give up hope.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?
I’ve found out I had cancer three times in my life, and each time was a bit different. The first time, in 1998, I had severe chest pains, and it was difficult to breathe. I went to a doctor, and he gave me a chest X-ray, which revealed a mass in my chest. Subsequent tests showed that I had a 9-cm tumor, and that the cancer also had spread to my abdomen. I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and I had to start chemotherapy treatments right away. Fifteen years later, in 2014, I found a lump under my armpit. I had a weird feeling about it. Three months later, I noticed it had grown. At the urging of one of my friends, I went to get it checked, and a tumor showed up on the mammogram. It was Stage II breast cancer. In 2018, I had the same chest pains and a chronic cough. I called my oncologist and said, “I have cancer again. I am sure of it.” I went for a mammogram, which revealed a new tumor, and further testing showed the cancer had also spread to the bones in my chest and rib cage. This was Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
With lymphoma and Stage II breast cancer, I did think I would be OK in the end. I did not fear dying from those two cancers. The scariest part, however, was when I had cancer a third time: the Stage IV metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. That was the most serious cancer, the one I thought I might not survive. Receiving that awful phone call with the news that it had spread, I was terrified of the death sentence I had always heard about regarding this type of diagnosis. I remember my father asking me, “Is there anything past Stage IV?” And I answered, “No, that’s it.” It was the hardest time of my life.
How did you react in the short term?
With all three cancers, I actually handled them differently in the short term.
With Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I joined a weekly support group, plus sought one-on-one counseling and contacted various cancer organizations such as Gilda’s Club (now Red Door Community). I participated in their many free group support activities and art classes. I consulted a rabbi for guidance and spiritual healing, and I also kept an audio diary of my experiences.
With Stage II and Stage IV breast cancer, I continued one-on-one counseling and attending services at my temple — my faith and prayers were integral in my spiritual and physical well-being. I also continued to write, exercise, journal, perform improv and meditate.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
I quit a job that was causing me much stress and anxiety — as the head of an editorial department at an ad agency. Initially, my colleagues were very supportive of me while I went through treatment. However, when treatment was over eight months later, I was expected to go back, full-force, and assume my managerial role. I was beyond exhausted both emotionally and physically. I handed in my resignation without having another job lined up. I had never done that before — the financial security was now gone, but so was the stress. And I never looked back. I wanted to pursue something more meaningful. Taking care of your mental health is crucial, and with that in mind, I began to write The Pink Hulk while freelancing as a copy editor, which allowed me the time to devote to my acting career. Writing my cancer story in a play form was such a cathartic, therapeutic experience. I am still in touch with those colleagues who continue to support my artistic endeavors.
I also journal, freelance edit, and write (many of my writings have been published), bike ride, attend theater, perform improv, socialize with friends and family, exercise and meditate every day. I also love to sing with a group called Broadway Hearts, who do virtual singalong visits with children in hospitals all across the United States. And I love to dance and to ’70s disco music in my apartment!
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
My mom Rhoda and my dad David were key in helping me — I’m especially grateful to them and my older sisters Jennifer and Pam and how they helped me cope. The first time I was diagnosed with cancer (lymphoma), I remember getting a phone call from the hospital on the morning of New Year’s Eve, 1998. I literally fell to my knees when I was told I had cancer, and my parents who were listening in on another phone rushed into the room. My mom was holding me, and then my dad said to me, “Valerie, get up, come on, get up. You are going to be OK.” And then his mighty arms lifted me up. They said to me as I cried in our group embrace, “Valerie, we love you, and we are going to get through this together!”
In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?
Cancer says to me, “I keep coming back in different forms to try to take you down, but you, Valerie, you won’t quit and you keep kicking my ass — you are one tough superhero! You win! I have no more ammo, and I surrender!”
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?
We are all stronger than we think. And we have the power within ourselves to face challenges head-on. I had no idea that writing The Pink Hulk and performing it, along with my patient advocacy work, would be such a positive force, literally, around the world. These cancer experiences influenced my life’s mission to empower people and give them hope — not just those with cancer. I see both women and men dealing with the same universal issues with our health care system and its disparities, and the emotional and financial toll it takes on us. A cancer diagnosis is devastating, and unfortunately, access to the best treatment and support is unequal here and abroad. I am fortunate for the wonderful care I receive at New-York Presbyterian Hospital, which is the number one hospital in New York State. Other cancer patients and survivors don’t necessarily have access to hospitals like these, which are on the forefront of developing clinical trials and pursuing advancements in medicine, nor is there financial aid readily available for those faced with excessive medical bills and loss of work during treatment.
Creating The Pink Hulk has touched so many lives — I am grateful that writing my own life’s story and performing it has had a profound influence.
Case in point: Someone reached out to tell me they were contemplating committing suicide, but after watching my show they were inspired and said it helped them get through that dark period. After another show, a breast cancer patient asked if she could put on my pink cape to feel “The Pink Hulk” power, and she began flying around with it and took photos wearing the cape and with me. And then on tour, a cancer patient told me post-performance that seeing my show motivated her to fight her own breast cancer.
But the show is not just about cancer. Friends have said that they realized how unhappy they were in their jobs after seeing The Pink Hulk, and decided to pursue new careers. A woman with MS told me she was motivated to start biking again after watching a scene in The Pink Hulk about me completing a 40-mile bike marathon only two months after I finished my breast cancer treatment.
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
I have traveled across the United States and the world, touching the lives of those with breast cancer or any kind of cancer, and spreading a universal message of hope and empowerment. Even in countries like Sweden, Iceland, and Finland, where English is not the first language, my story still resonated. I have also performed in England, as well as 23 cities domestically and internationally. The Pink Hulk, a true testament to never giving up, has been featured on TV, radio, in publications, and on podcasts.
I go beyond just performing. I raise awareness, educate and inspire communities through my outreach, engagement and patient advocacy initiatives; and raise money for cancer organizations through my Pink Hulk performances. I also created “The Pink Hulk Forums,” moderating panels of health care experts, and providing resources for those seeking financial and emotional support. I have contributed to panel discussions with Theater Resources Unlimited, Broadway Bound Theatre Festival, Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival, and other organizations. I conduct improv and writing workshops, including monthly sessions for cancer patients and survivors through The Red Door Community (formerly Gilda’s Club of NYC). The Pink Hulk was performed at Rhode Island College’s nursing department as an educational tool for doctors, nurses, and hospitals to help them understand the patient perspective, as well as post-treatment. I also conducted Healing with Humor Workshops at the virtual Stowe, VT Weekend of Hope.
I am a member of the Solo Arts Heal collective, where a group of artists perform their solo shows for audiences as inspiration and empowerment.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
Myth: A Stage IV metastatic diagnosis is a death sentence. One can survive and thrive despite a chronic illness. I actually did research and selected the medicine I was on, and it worked. Though I am in treatment for life, I have no evidence of disease. I want others to realize that their life is not over with a Stage IV diagnosis or any kind of cancer diagnosis. You also have the power to make your own decisions about your health care and medical team, and you can change the direction of your care if you are not fully satisfied.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
These “5 Things” accompany or are additions to my video submission:
1) Find the best hospital to treat your cancer and the best team of doctors who will listen to you. After 20 years of treatment at a cancer hospital, I felt it was best for me to reboot with a new team and a new hospital. I had grown uncomfortable with the level of care I was receiving and the feeling I was not being listened to. This turned out to be one of my best decisions. Also, you want a doctor who will believe in your survivorship. My nurse overheard my lymphoma doctor say, “I am not worried about Valerie, she’ll be fine.”
2) Never be afraid to ask for help. I asked my family and friends to come over and help me do laundry and housekeeping or drop off meals/groceries when I was not feeling well from treatment. And for my four weeks of radiation treatment for breast cancer, I created an electronic calendar where people signed up to accompany me to the hospital. Also, I had two out-of-pocket bills at two separate times totaling almost $8,000, so I sought financial aid and those bills were pardoned.
3) When you go to your doctors’ appointment, get someone to accompany you and take down notes during your visit. As a cancer patient, I was already overwhelmed, so it was a tremendous help to not feel alone and have someone writing down everything, including all the instructions and expectations about your treatment.
4) Find cancer organizations to help you through your journey. There are many cancer organizations out there to help with emotional and financial support. I have found groups that can help pay for cancer treatment, reimburse you for transportation back and forth from your treatment center, and offer free support groups and services, such as yoga, writing workshops, and art classes.
5) Maintain a sense of normalcy and surround yourself with people who are positive. I focused on doing things for myself when I felt well, and having a strong group of friends and family who treated me like a person and not a cancer patient. I said good-bye to friends who were toxic and did not understand what I was going through. And I still kept doing the things I love, like performing improv, dancing and singing.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
I would encourage everyone to write his/her own life story. We are all superheroes. Find your own superhero moment — use your life’s experiences to help others and be an advocate for patients and survivors. My Pink Hulk superhero is to fight adversity and inspire hope, and to “NEVER EVER GIVE UP” — that is actually the last line of my play. And within your story, assist in finding resources for emotional and financial help.
You have the power to touch people’s lives, to make a difference, and to create art to influence and empower others.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
I have time in my schedule to meet both of them: Oliva Newton-John for breakfast in Australia and Shannen Doherty for dinner in Los Angeles. I’d love to meet Olivia because I am so inspired by her Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre, where cancer patients experience world-leading treatment and care complemented by wellness programs to support patients’ overall well-being. I read that they have over 200 clinical trials in progress, providing access to new, breakthrough therapies. She is doing so much good, and I want to thank her for all she does. I would love to join forces with her and work with her in all of her patient advocacy.
And then I would have dinner with Shannen Doherty. Throughout her Stage IV metastatic cancer diagnosis, she is still a working actress and still making films. She went public about her cancer diagnosis, not afraid to tell the world that she has cancer and it’s not a death sentence, nor is it an end to her career. She is living proof that you can still thrive and live your dream — she does what she loves to do despite her diagnosis. I want to thank her for inspiring me.
Both Olivia and Shannen share my Stage IV diagnosis, and they truly inspire and empower me.
How can our readers further follow your work online? PinkHulkPlay.com
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!