by Kelsey Harper
While flourishing and dancing through life in New York City, breast cancer was the last thing on Danielle Tropsa’s mind. Her journey of survival has brought new perspectives and a mission to help other young women.
The diagnosis came fast and out of nowhere.
"I had gone to a workout class the night before and I felt something weird, like a pain on my right side, and I thought maybe I hurt myself," she recalls. "I said, let me just make sure that this isn't something that I should be concerned about, so I started doing a self-exam and that's when I found a lump."
"In my heart, everything sunk."
Understandably overcome with fear, the type that can trigger anxiety or leave people frozen in denial, Danielle's instinct was to take the necessary and immediate steps to get answers.
"I knew I needed to figure out what it was either to have peace of mind that it was nothing or find out that it was something and get ahead of it," she shares. "I was terrified. I didn't want to do any of that, but I ultimately needed to find out an answer in order to understand how to deal with it."
"I said to myself, I'm not messing around with this."
The importance of doing a regular breast self-exam is championed by a movement called 'feel it on the first,' which encourages women to conduct an exam on the first of every month. Danielle wasn't on this routine at the time but knew what to do.
"I'm so grateful that I had the intuition to do it, but that's not the case for everyone," she says. "To be honest, I never thought it was going to be cancer even though I had a sinking feeling that it could be bad."
She was relentless about getting in to see her gynecologist the same day, a Friday, who validated that the lump was indeed something to look in to further. By Monday, she was in for a sonogram and was told by the radiologist that, while it could be nothing, she wanted to take a biopsy.
"I probably owe [the radiologist] my life in the sense that a lot of doctors dismiss people who are younger. She was a breast cancer survivor too so she was not taking chances."
The appointment to review her results came on a Friday, which fell on the 13th that year. Danielle's mother accompanied her on the visit, and they were advised by the nurse that it would be 'an intimate conversation.'
Indeed, it was. Thirty years old at the time, with no history of cancer of any kind in her family, Danielle was told that she had breast cancer.
"I remember [the conversation], but it feels like I was not even there," she recalls. "I remember it so vividly but at the same time it doesn't feel it was real - like this weird nightmare that you can't forget but it's ingrained in your brain."
Nearly inconsolable in the moment, Danielle couldn't fully process the doctor's explanation, which came through as a jumble of terminology amid the shock and confusion.
With her diagnosis coming at what appeared to be an early stage, the nurse stepped in to provide some optimistic counsel.
"She said, 'Danielle, I have met so many women that have gone through this, and they've all survived. You need to know you're going to survive,'" she recalls.
"To this day, I still think about her words because there's some truth to it - it did help me in terms of feeling stronger and that I can do this - but that's not really the whole truth because it's not a disease you just get rid of."
All Danielle could focus on was the fight that was right in front of her. Every other aspect of her life was immediately put into question, including one of the great joys of her life, dance.
"I've been dancing since I was four years old," she says.
The decision to put it all on hold was both clear and deeply painful.
"I didn't know what the timelines were going to be, and I knew I couldn't focus on both things at the same time, so it was the right decision," she shares. "It was probably harder than the diagnosis itself because I love dancing that much."
"Cancer wasn't only threatening my life, it was taking something away that meant so much to me."
Danielle's connection to dance is rooted in the way that she connects with music.
"I grew up with a slight learning disability and that came with some auditory processing issues," she explains. "In school, I had a problem with listening to teachers talk when I needed to visually see it."
"With music, it was completely different. I could just hear the music and understand it immediately."
The way that Danielle instinctively connected with music, and drew inferences from beats and musicality at a very young age, helped her process through other aspects of her life and improved her perspectives dramatically.
In a way, it was her language.
"Music is something that's deep inside of my soul," she says.
Danielle's style is a 'contemporary hip-hop' that goes beyond its artistic, athletic, and technical qualities. The endeavor is emotive for her, one that expresses the unique way that she coheres with music and movement.
"It's more of an emotional connection, my style is slightly more intricate," she explains. "I love trying to make texture and different depths and dynamics within a dance - that's my favorite part of the craft."
"You can find elements and different ways to do things that people might not expect."
Dance, like many other athletic and artistic pursuits, comes with a perceived and sometimes self-imposed expectation of perfection.
"I used to think it had to be perfect, I wanted it to be a certain kind of way, but really it's about giving motivation and inspiration to the dancers that are learning," she says. "It's also something that you can just be proud of for yourself."
"If you enjoy it, [others] are going to enjoy it."
Danielle continued to dance through college, amassing accomplishments and accolades, but never gave consideration to dancing professionally. So, after graduating, and being a part of organized dance since she was a young girl, Danielle was unsure how it would fit into her new adult life.
Eager to find a way, she went through a cycle of dance classes and studios but was unable to find the right fit.
"It wasn't until I moved to [New York City] that I found a dance company [Dance Works] that was built for adults who have full-time jobs and still want to dance at a really high skill level," she shares. "It's all self-choreographed - and I was a choreographer at one point - and we ended up putting on four different show throughout the year."
Beyond returning to her love of dance and the joy of performing, the reconnection to community meant as much if not more.
"Dance communities are some of the best I've ever experienced," Danielle says. "From when I was a little kid, every dance community I've ever been a part of has been so close-knit and supportive of anything that anyone does."
"We're just like family."
Danielle's diagnosis came while she was preparing for an upcoming show, which made the decision to put her passion on hold even more difficult. She went back home to Connecticut for the comfort of being in a familiar place with family, and though her dance friends were in the city, they would be by her side every step of the way.
"It was amazing to have those people in my life, and really special to have that community behind me - it was like that from the start," she shares.
They threw a surprise party to show their support after her diagnosis, they honored her in the show she was supposed to be performing in, they were there to help her take her first steps after surgery, and they celebrated the end of chemotherapy together.
"When you have a community like that, there are no words. It was one of the most amazing and emotional experiences of my life," says Danielle.
Finding opportunities, when she could, to keep dancing was important to her as well, if not vital. It helped her through some of the most difficult days of her treatment and provided an oasis throughout her journey.
"When I went through chemo there were days I didn't want to get up," she shares. "My body hurt so much, but what got me through was knowing there would be one week that I would feel really good."
"I would do chemo once every three weeks," she explains. "The first week was awful, the second week I was just really tired and didn't want to do much, but then that third week I would start to feel a little bit better. So, I would go down to the gym in my building and I would just put music on that I connected with, and I would dance."
These improv sessions were incredibly healing for Danielle, so when friends wanted to work with a fellow choreographer to dedicate a dance production to her cancer journey, she was not only moved but wanted to be actively involved.
"[The choreographer] and I would have rehearsals and I would learn a choreographed piece which made me feel like I still had dance in my life," she recalls.
"Having dance was something that separated me away from my cancer journey. It gave me something to look forward to, to be a part of, and to have my brain on something else. It was such a positive and good source of not only exercise but mental and emotional activity."
The positive energy that came from dance helped Danielle deal with and manage a medical treatment process that, while regimented, was overwhelming.
"I didn't really know what I wanted to do because I was so overwhelmed. Luckily, I had a nurse consultant that was helping me. She would explain to me exactly what my type of cancer was, what tests I still needed, and where I needed to go to first."
"I had to get to a surgeon in order to figure out what I could and couldn't do."
For Danielle, as in dance, her decisions would be guided as much by an emotional connection as technical qualifications. It was important to her that she find the best medical care and be more than a just patient number.
"I feel like with the breast surgeon, especially for me, I wanted to feel some kind of emotional connection. I wanted to find someone that understood me and understood what I was going through - someone that would be able to talk to me like a human."
In what may have been fate, Danielle's mother had a friend who was a nurse for Dr. Andrea Barrio, a breast surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Westchester, New York.
"I went and met with Dr. Barrio and instantly her and I had such a connection," she says. "One, she literally saved my life, and two, she just made me feel so comfortable."
The comfort and emotional support provided by a doctor cannot be underemphasized, even as they relate to medical care. Danielle points out that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to breast cancer treatment. Many of the decisions, which ultimately fall on the patient, need to be made quickly.
"When you're in it, you have to make the decision relatively fast, sometimes within twenty-four hours. At the time it can feel like, 'ok I just have to do it,' but no one really anticipates what that's going to mean for them after."
"Having the support, having people surround you that can actually relate and understand what you're going through is so helpful."
One of the biggest decisions that Danielle faced was whether to elect for a lumpectomy, also known as breast-conserving surgery, or a mastectomy, where the entire breast is removed. A friend who had gone through a mastectomy was there to offer her perspective.
"I asked her, 'how did you feel after, what was that like,'" she recalls.
"She said, 'the hardest thing for me is that I have a physical reminder every day. No matter how far I am mentally, I have a physical reminder of it because it's surgery, it's invasive, things change on your body, and you can't make it look the same as it was before.'"
"That was her journey, but it stuck with me because it was so interesting to know," Danielle continues. "I'm so glad I talked to someone who understood it because even though I made that choice, it made it easier for me to cope with after."
There is gratitude in having a choice because the diagnosis could have been different and worse. Danielle wants to combat the stereotype that breast cancer only affects certain age-groups, and implores young women to conduct regular self-exams.
"People who are even younger than 30 should be doing it. I've known women who have been diagnosed when they were twenty-two. It's crazy, you would never think that would happen but it does."
"That's why feel it on the first is such an important movement," she emphasizes. "Your body won't be the same on the first of every month, and that's good because you can catch things at different stages of your cycle."
Due in large part to her self-exam and swift action, Danielle is now three years cancer-free. Early detection is critical and gave Tropsa the opportunity to get ahead of the fight, but it doesn't stop there.
"Breast cancer that's just in your breast doesn't kill you, it's when it spreads," she explains. "It's metastatic that you have to worry about the most, and unfortunately even with mine - I caught it at stage one - its invasive which means there's still potential for cancer in my system."
"I say that I choose not to live in fear but I'd be lying to you if I told you that it wasn't anxiety-provoking."
Danielle pays close attention to her body and has adopted changes to her lifestyle that she documents through her Instagram page. Through it all, the support she has received has been something she didn't realize she needed until it was there.
"I remember thinking, 'I don't know if I need anyone else to be in my support group,'" she explains. In addition to her circle of friends, her family's love and support were, in her words, 'indescribable.'
“My mom and dad never missed an appointment, surgery, consultation, nothing. Even if the appointment was five minutes long and they traveled from another state, they didn’t care. My sister organized events, including a fundraiser to help provide for medical bills. She came to chemo appointments, even if it meant she had to do work from the treatment room.”
Still, on advice, Danielle sought out a support group but it was difficult to find the right fit. So, when a dance friend recommended The Breasties, a newly formed organization that began with the idea for 'a group that made all young women dealing with high risk or diagnosis feel supported,' Danielle agreed to attend an informal dinner they were hosting in New York.
"I did that dinner and I realized 'oh, this is what I need and I didn't even know I needed it,'" she recalls. "It was so nice to be able to connect with women who were my age and who understood."
"They were able to relate."
"[The Breasties] was such an amazing group to find. They understood the process and what that means for women who are younger because it does mean a lot of different things."
At the time, The Breasties were hosting small gatherings and scheduling meetups in the city via group texts and direct messages on Instagram. Today, they are a powerhouse community with a powerful mission:
'To empower those affected by breast and reproductive cancers by igniting strength and positivity through connection, free retreats, wellness activities, events, and an all-inclusive resourceful online community. The hope is to spread the message that whatever you are going through - you are not alone.'
With so many much-needed organizations focusing on research and medicine, The Breasties help fill an expansive gap for support while catering to the needs of young women.
There are now over 46 chapters in cities around the world, supported by an official ambassador program which counts Danielle as a representative for the New York Breasties.
"I just want to give back and hopefully pay it forward to the women who are going through something now, or even if they've gone through it in the past and they want a group that just understands it, we're there for them."
"A support system is helpful because being able to have that mental and emotional support is so important to the physical journey."
For what she has received, being an advocate for other young women has been Danielle's calling. While she wouldn't choose a cancer diagnosis, she does choose to celebrate the silver linings that have come in the form of beautiful new relationships and newfound perspectives.
"My perspective on life, in general, has changed astronomically, I can't even say I'm the same person," she says.
"You breathe differently and you feel energy different; you like look at life differently. I feel like I have more of an emotional and physical connection with myself."
Her heightened connections bring healing to life's everyday stress; real or perceived, big or small.
"There are so many things that we can't control, and really the only constant in life is change. Being able to let go of the smaller things is something that - as cliché as it sounds - is so powerful and important."
While Danielle acknowledges that her cancer journey has helped her perspective evolve more quickly, her life journey transcends the disease and can inspire anyone listening to take heed.
"Nobody's life is perfect, and if you're able to dig a little deeper and learn, you can build your perspective over time even through the smaller struggles."
"I'm perfectly happy staying in the present and making the changes I want to make now. If I want to make a change in the future, I'm going to do it. That's just how I live my life now."
Her guiding principle is one of life's most salient lessons.
"Just let go as much as possible and enjoy every single moment."
ACTIIVST has partnered with The Breasties on an exclusive collection, and we are donating 100% of the proceeds to support their mission to empower those affected by breast and reproductive cancer.
Proceeds from every ACTIIVST purchase supports cause-based and nonprofit organizations with a focus on equality, education, and physical and mental health. To learn more, click here.