LIFE OF LEGACY
by Kelsey Harper
Maggie Kudirka has been living with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer for over 6 years – emphasis on living. Diagnosed at 23 years old while a ballet dancer with the prestigious Joffrey Concert Group in New York City, she became known as the Bald Ballerina. Her life today is one of inspired hope and legacy.
“My philosophy was beautifully stated by designer Lilly Pulitzer; ‘Despite the forecast, live like it’s Spring,” Maggie shared on Instagram around Easter earlier this year.
“Easter has always been one of my favorite holidays because nature so perfectly mirrors the religious celebration of the resurrection,” she continued. “I love seeing trees that appeared dead a few months ago suddenly burst into bloom. I love seeing leaves pushing through the bare earth followed by golden daffodil blossoms.”
“Spring and Easter celebrate the rebirth of the spirit and the hope for a better future.”
There’s no denying that Maggie’s outlook is shaped by her diagnosis. “Cancer changes your perspective pretty quickly,” she says. “[It] makes one aware of just how precious life, family, and friends are; that small annoyances are just not worth fussing over.”
By listening carefully to her words, it’s clear that the perspective she chooses is exactly that, her choice. Cancer came into Maggie's life without permission and imposed its will, however, she has never relinquished control over how she lives – no matter how uncertain the outlook.
Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) is breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body such as the bones, brain, or liver. There is no cure and is, therefore, by definition, terminal. Maggie explains that MBC represents 30% of all breast cancers, and it’s the only type that is deadly, killing more than 100 women every day.
“One day, I may be one of those women,” she says soberingly.
“Until a cure is found for metastatic breast cancer, no one with breast cancer can ever be certain that they are cured. Months, years, or even decades later, some patients will develop [MBC] and die. It is a possibility that no one wants to talk about.”
When Maggie was diagnosed in 2014, her doctor didn’t specify how long she would have to live, saying only that he wanted to keep her living and dancing as long as possible.
Now among the small percentage of people with MBC that live beyond five years, Maggie recently celebrated her 6th ‘cancer-versary.’
“It was hard deciding which date to celebrate such an important milestone,” she shares. “Many choose the date of diagnosis, but my cancer had been growing long before that date. To me, the most important date was the day I had my first chemo treatment and began taking back my body and its cells from cancer.”
By the time Maggie was diagnosed, cancer had already spread to her bones and lymph nodes. She was aware of a lump in her left breast months prior, but the demands of her professional dancing career, and a system that dismissed the risk of a 23-year-old woman having breast cancer, kept her from seeing a doctor.
“I thought I had just pulled a muscle,” she told People Magazine in 2016. “Being a dancer, I could not take time off and risk losing my parts, so I continued dancing without telling anyone about my ‘injury.’”
“I [also] had trouble getting in to see a doctor because their gatekeepers did not think a lump in a 23-year-old woman was serious,” she continued.1 “They said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s probably nothing. You’re too young for breast cancer.”
“How I wish they had been right.”
While it is rare for women in their twenties to be diagnosed, the cases can be vicious.
“When breast cancer strikes someone under age 30, it is usually very fast-growing and frequently metastatic at initial diagnosis,” Maggie explains. “For many young women, by the time a lump is felt, the cancer has already spread, as happened to me.”
For the better part of five years, Maggie's cancer was kept relatively stable through the grateful work of her team of doctors and advances in medicine. She has endured a double mastectomy, a hysterectomy, and chemotherapy that requires maintenance infusions every three weeks. To date, she has received over 100 of these infusions which will continue for the rest of her life or until a cure is discovered.
Recently, however, she shared an update via Instagram.
“Cancer is again active in my body just as when Bald Ballerina was born on June 24, 2014," she said before bravely adding; "I am just as hopeful now as when I was first diagnosed.”
The day after her first diagnosis, Maggie was back at the dance studio. This may be incomprehensible to some, but it was logical and innate for her. The grace, beauty, and artistry that she mastered as a professional ballerina, is matched by the discipline that comes from being an elite athlete with a deep love for her craft.
“I am grateful for every day that I am healthy and strong enough to dance,” Maggie told People.1 “When I was with the Joffrey Concert Group, I often wished the rehearsal would end early; I welcomed days off from a grueling performance schedule. Now I long for those days.”
“While I don’t have the stamina and strength to dance full time, I cherish each invitation I get to perform because it could be my last,” she continued.1 “I will keep dancing as long as I can. It is what I live for and it is what keeps me alive.”
Today, albeit differently than she ever imagined, Maggie is still living her dream as a dancer. She generously shares her gifts with aspiring young dancers, broadcasts through various online and social media channels, was named a Gaynor Minden artist, and performs to benefit MBC research and awareness – most notably at the concert-fundraiser that she created six years ago called ‘No One Can Survive Alone.’
“When I had my first concert, I never expected to be planning and dancing in my sixth as statistics say the median life expectancy is two to three years,” Maggie told the Baltimore Sun in January. “While cancer and its treatments have taken a toll on my body, I am happy that I can still dance and will be performing.”
"I have danced all through my treatments," she says.3 "My doctors encouraged me to continue staying active. Staying active helped minimize the side effects of my chemo treatments and the drugs to work more effectively."
Physical limitations have not dampened Maggie’s desire to pursue her passions, and while dance has remained among them, she looked to fill the expansive void created by the forced end to her professional career.
“[I] didn’t know anything else but dance. I had to find something to occupy my time that was equally important to me,” she explains.4
The decision to become a public advocate for MBC was born out of the difficulty she had finding resources and information when she was diagnosed, particularly for someone her age.
“I wanted to educate everyone about Metastatic Breast Cancer, and there was no one out there doing it so I thought - I'll do it,” she shared in a beautiful piece produced by Allure and Condé Nast. “I'll get the courage and share my story and speak on stage to everyone and anyone who will listen.”
It should not be taken for granted that the world is blessed with people like Maggie, who share their most personal and intimate vulnerabilities for the betterment of others and a greater cause. Herein lies is the power of her advocacy, and it comes from unlikely beginnings.
“As a child, I was very shy and if you met me today, you would never believe that I was speech delayed because I do public speaking and all this stuff,” she says.5 "Just speaking, in general, was hard for me."
“Growing up I was homeschooled due to dyslexia. I learned at my own pace. My first graduation where I wore a cap and gown and walked across the stage to get my diploma was for my BFA [Bachelor of Fine Arts] in Dance Performance.”
Receiving her college degree from Towson University in Maryland was: “An accomplishment I didn’t think was possible when I was younger,” Maggie reflects.
Redefining possibilities is perhaps her most inspiring living legacy.
“A lot of people ask, ‘How can you stay so brave? I don't know that I could do this,’ and I say, I have to do it so I'm going to do it.” 5
Talking about terminal illness is hard. Like any difficult conversation that asks people to share their own vulnerabilities in return, it often falls victim to personal discomfort. Maggie’s style brings a welcoming tone without diluting the blunt and urgent nature of her message.
“I want to make people aware that breast cancer can strike anyone, at any age. No one is immune, no one is too young, no one is too fit,” she says.
“I celebrate life along with my fellow cancer survivors and hope that a cure is found before it is too late for me and the thousands of women who die every year from this dreadful disease.”
One of Maggie’s favorite quotes is by Hans Christian Anderson, who said: ‘Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale of all.’
“For those of us with incurable Metastatic Breast Cancer, life itself is a gift. A cure is the happy ending we dream of,” she shares. “Research is the key to keeping us alive because most cancer treatments will eventually stop working.”
“Scientists know very little about metastatic cancer and what makes cancer spread to other organs,” Maggie continues. “Sometimes it takes years for this to happen, sometimes it happens almost immediately like it did for me.”
“I am alive today because of three new drugs that [have become] available. Sadly, cancer figures out how to get around most drugs. I hope that new drugs become available when my current drugs stop working and that eventually, a cure will be found.”
To date, the cost of Maggie’s medical care has exceeded $1.5 million.
“It is vitally important that lawmakers do not allow lifetime caps on benefits or determine that certain treatments can be excluded because they cost too much,” she explains. “Life is more valuable than money.”
“Sadly, the health care debate has pitted healthy people against sick and disabled people. Good health is not guaranteed to anyone. Cancer does not discriminate; everyone is at risk.”
The unvarnished and beautiful way that Maggie shares her truths, even during her most difficult times, reframes her journey as everyone’s – because it could be anyone’s. Among these very relatable struggles is an honest fear.
“I am very frightened about what my future will be; whether the cancer will be stopped; what the side-effects will be; whether I will still be able to dance,” she says.
The importance of the community that surrounds her, near and far, is perfectly summed up by a woman she admires, who said: ‘The kindness and affection from the public have carried me through some of the most difficult periods, and always your love and affection have eased the journey.’
“These words are from Princess Diana,” Maggie posted on Instagram in June. “They perfectly sum up how I feel. To me, kindness is priceless. It is just as important in cancer patients’ lives as the very expensive drugs and treatments that keep them alive.”
“Thank you to everyone who has shown me kindness,” she continued. “You are a vital part of my treatment plan; I don’t know where I would be without it. With your continued support and prayers, I hope to have many, many more years of living and dancing.”
Whatever the future holds, Maggie will stay true to form; trying new things, and taking risks. She will celebrate the great joys of her life with her family, which includes her beloved Pomeranian Momma Mia, remaining optimistic and hopeful.
“Just as Spring always follows Winter, this terrible time will eventually pass.”
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1 People - ‘'Bald Ballerina' Keeps Dancing Through a Double Mastectomy and Treatment for Terminal Breast Cancer’ October 24, 2016
2 Baltimore Sun - ‘Howard County’s ‘Bald Ballerina’ is back with a lot of love at annual fundraiser to combat breast cancer’ January 1, 2020
3 Self - ‘Beautiful Photos of a Ballerina Dancing Through Terminal Cancer’ October 12, 2016
4 Shape – 'Dancing Through the Pain' October 2019
5 Allure – ‘A Metastatic Breast Cancer Patient's Journey in 6 Photos’ October 29, 2019
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