In an earlier post, we shared with you the story of one of our 2016 DreamGirls, Calysta Bevier. Today we will share with you the story of our second 2016 DreamGirl, Tony and Grammy nominated Broadway star Valisia LeKae.
It was December 2013 and Valisia LeKae was living what can only be described as “the dream.” For two years, she had worked tirelessly to bring a new musical to Broadway. And when it debuted, she became the toast of the town.
Valisia burst onto the Broadway scene starring as music icon Diana Ross in the Berry Gordy-produced, smash hit Motown: The Musical. As if rave reviews and sell-out audiences weren’t enough, she won a Theatre World Award and was nominated for a Tony Award, a Grammy Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Drama Desk Award.
Eight shows a week. Sixty songs and dance routines. Dozens of costume and wig changes. The atmosphere was electric. Valisia’s impeccable voice, her look, her confidence and strength were at the heart of Motown.
Then one day, a routine exam revealed an ovarian cyst. Feeling healthy and strong and with no other symptoms, Valisia wasn’t concerned. She would take a leave from the show to have the cyst removed and, following a short recovery, she’d reprise her role of a lifetime.
But follow-up tests revealed that the cyst was actually clear cell carcinoma of the ovary. Valisia was sure the doctors had it wrong. “I had never heard of clear cell carcinoma, and thought I was too young and too healthy to have ovarian cancer,” she admits. “I don’t know how many people have earned a Grammy nomination one day, and been diagnosed with cancer the very next day.”
The diagnosis and subsequent treatment changed Valisia: physically, emotionally and spiritually. The recovery from Valisia’s first surgery of having her cyst removed was debilitating and much harder than she had anticipated. A few weeks later she would have a second surgery to remove her right ovary and right fallopian tube, followed by several rounds of chemotherapy.
With chemotherapy starting soon, Valisia tried to exert control. “I had spent a year growing out my hair. I knew that I had three weeks between my first chemotherapy treatment and when I would start losing my hair. The Grammy’s were exactly three weeks away.”
Just 11 days after starting chemotherapy, Valisia’s hair started falling out. “That day I realized I was putting something in my body that was changing me for better or worse. I went to B Braxton’s in Harlem (the owner is also a theatre actress) and I cut my hair and I cried. It was liberating but scary.”
After a lifetime playing different roles, wearing different wigs and costumes, and as the child of a cosmetologist who changed her hairstyle weekly, Valisia embraced her baldness.
“I didn’t want anything to cover me up. I only wanted my red lipstick. Every time I had a chemotherapy appointment, I had that red lipstick on,” she explains. “It was my war paint.”
That sentiment is shared by many women who have participated in a Look Good Feel Better workshop, something Valisia also had the opportunity to experience. “Taking control of my appearance gave me such power. What I witnessed in the Look Good Feel Better workshop was women taking back their power, together. It was a beautiful sight.”
After completing chemo and being declared cancer-free by her doctors, Valisia found herself struggling with unexpected physical and emotional pain. “No one talks about the aftermath,” she says. “I was so afraid that my cancer was going to come back. Every little ache or pain led to panic: ‘Is that cancer?’ ‘Is it back?’ I just closed up. I definitely couldn’t sing.”
She struggled to re-define her identity post cancer. “My ability to relate to characters as an actress had changed. My body was different. My face was different. My shape had changed. Everything was different! I wasn’t this young girl anymore; I had become a woman.”
She ultimately found a new sense of purpose and power. “It’s OK that I am a different person now because that person is stronger, more beautiful, definitely wiser, more resilient, and actually vulnerable. If it wasn’t for this journey, I wouldn’t have allowed people to see my weaknesses – weaknesses that now have become my greatest strengths.”