The Cancer Dancer
Date Published: November 4, 2021
Sarrah Strimel Bentley has been singing and dancing since she was three years old. “I would spend hours putting on one-woman shows,” she recalls. “I think we all knew pretty early on what I was destined to do.” Sarrah went on to appear in The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and other Broadway shows. Now a yoga instructor, Sarrah faced the greatest challenge of her life this past year—an aggressive breast cancer that called for an equally aggressive treatment regimen. On Road to Resilience, Sarrah talks about harnessing her experience as a yogi and performer to weather the storm, including by “joy-mining” and staying connected to her body.
Sarrah Strimel Bentley is the creator and founder of Damn Good Yoga.
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. This is Road to Resilience, a podcast about getting through the hard stuff. I'm Jon Earle.
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 00:10
I am a 39-year-old stage II invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer survivor. I mean, that's not really how I typically introduce myself, but I feel like for today's purposes it is appropriate
A more typical introduction for Sarah Strimmel Bentley would have included former Broadway performer.
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 00:34
I did Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me If You Can, Rock of Ages, Big Fish, where I played a mermaid. I love that movie. And then my swan song was An American in Paris.
Sarrah's specialty was musicals, which she will defend to the death. I just can't stand musicals. There's so stupid! Why are they singing and dancing?
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 00:57
I told you why, Jon, and I feel very strongly about this.
I want you to tell the listeners why they're singing and dancing, because I thought it was really interesting.
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 01:03
The origin of why musicals came to be was because words were not strong enough to convey emotion. You're so excited. You're so sad. You're so this, you're so that, that no longer can you speak this. You must sing it to get the emotions out. And then when you can't sing any louder than you're singing, you start to dance because then the song is just not enough. The body must take over. So then, of course, it ends up in this giant 11 o'clock number where you're singing and you're dancing, and then you have the townspeople come in and they get behind you. And then the town has so much emotion. And so, yeah, that's the easiest way to explain why we sing and dance on stage. It's too much to hold, the emotion.
What happens after dancing?
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 01:54
I have no trouble picturing Sarrah on stage. She was funny and cheerful when we spoke. But the past year of Sarrah's life has been as much about collapsing as singing. First came the diagnosis, an aggressive breast cancer. Then came—
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 02:10
A double mastectomy, two rounds back-to-back of IVF, eight rounds of ACT chemotherapy, 28 rounds of radiation. And just recently I had my final reconstructive surgery, where they switched my tissue expanders to implants.
Yeah. So on this episode of the podcast, we're looking at how Sarrah weathered that storm. As she tells it, she didn't make a decision to be resilient, she made a million decisions, moment to moment. To make joy, to make peace, and to keep getting back up again in different ways.
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 02:45
One day you wake up and you're like, "I have cancer." And that is the biggest thing to hold on the planet. And then what happens immediately after is a flurry, more like a hurricane, more like a blizzard, I want to say, of appointments and of information. And so the white noise happens where you don't really hear anything at all. You definitely don't hear your own voice, your own emotions. And then, when I started chemotherapy is the moment where you have a slight amount of spaciousness. You have an event, which is getting the chemo once every two—for me—once every two weeks. And then the subsequent, what, 13 days between each round of chemo, I would come out to our house in the middle of the woods, on the water, and finally have a chance to exhale. And that moment was when I had the choice to decide to feel scared. And I did feel that way, but decide to really let myself sink down into "Why me?" and the anger and the "This isn't fair," and "This was not supposed to happen to me." "The universe has my back," all this stuff, you know. And that was the choice, or the choice was to look at all the beauty around me when I had the moment. And so that was the way that I was able to find that resilience, was saying, like, "What's happening is happening. You have a choice. It is your choice whether to make yourself feel worse or better."
I interviewed somebody recently who talked about the resilience toolkit and how you cycle through these different techniques that—something works for a little while and then it doesn't work and then you'll try something else. And this can happen hour to hour, day to day, almost minute to minute.
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 04:32
Yeah. That was a tool, and then there was a "rage against the machine" cancer patient at one point, where I was like, "I'm gonna drink a whole bottle of wine!" There's different hats or different tools, and I think we all have different ways of saying this. But I think truly at the end of the day the easiest way to say it is you allow yourself to feel everything. You give yourself the full scope of human emotion, because there's nothing like feeling the full scope of human emotion when someone's like, "Hey, you might die. You know, so sit with that one for a minute."
Where would you sit with that one?
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 05:14
Oh, I don't know, that's a loaded question, Jon. You know, I had never quite let myself sit with that one. I think when I did, if I was being completely honest with you, I think if I was going to leave a legacy now, like, let's say if that was my swan song, and that was my final act, the last year that I had, I think I started to think about legacy a little, which is really hard when you're 39 years old. And I started to think of the legacy that I would want to leave through experience was exactly how I experienced it. I documented it with joy and with, you know, if that was going to be my last time around here, like I said, I'd want to go down in a vibrant, big old splashy finale. I wouldn't want to go down in the sad, antagonist patter song, if we're doing musical analogies.
You have photographs of yourself doing yoga on the roof, and there's the seaside and—that's almost where I imagined you sitting with all of this.
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 06:36
In this house that I'm recording with you from right now, I'm sitting up in my yoga studio, which is like my little third-floor sanctuary. Each day during treatment when I was out here—and this is like a healing house, it's like my sanctuary—and I found my lump by itching my armpit on a path on the way to our beach. It's this magical path of phragmites, which are these tall, big sea grasses, and stunning birds and it opens up right onto the bay. And it's like the water just, you know, encompasses you when you get to the end of it. So for me, every day during treatment I would walk that same path where I found my lump. And I would watch and feel myself change. You know, I mean, obviously the literal changes—I would walk that path and I had hair and I had boobs. Then I'd walk that path and I had temporary expanders and I was 10 pounds lighter. And then I would walk that path the next month and I was bald and puffy. And I would walk that path the next month. So that's where I would unpack everything, looking at the water. I'm a water person, I'm a triple water sign, and so I would go down to my beach and I would just take stock of how I was shifting. Not just physically, but take stock of how I was shifting emotionally and as a woman. I look at that girl who found the lump on that path, and then towards the end of treatment, the woman that walked down it was a very different human than the girl that walked down the path at the very beginning of this experience.
What was the biggest difference between the girl and the woman?
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 08:26
I think the woman now knows that she's not invincible. The woman now knows that when you look at the other side, and you quite literally stare your death in the face, it becomes this deep knowing and this deep-rooted strength of who you are in the world. And I mean that in such a calmer way. It's a much more rooted sense of self I have now knowing, seeing that dark and going there and going into the deepest parts of despair. And also going there with the people around me, going there with my partner. Love is amazing in all forms, in all of the highs and lows, but when you're screaming at the top of your lungs through a whole night with your partner rubbing your back and going through that war with you, I mean, it's just such a—you get to know yourself, you get to know the people around you, your eyes are far more open. Because all the bulls***'s cut out, right? Like you're not worried about the stupid stuff. It's really not until, I think, through struggle and through, I mean, I went to war, you know? I don't know anyone that's gone to war and come back the same person.
I want to back up just a little bit to "joy-mining." Tell me about joy-mining.
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 10:01
This is all going to sound very similar, all these different things, And that's good. I want it to sound similar for you guys because it all comes from the same principle of finding the joy amongst—I'm going to say s*** again—amongst the s***. Finding those little moments of amazing magic amongst the tear down. I felt like everything was being burned to the ground in February. I was puffier than I've ever been. It was the hardest chemo rounds I had had. I was on this bone medication that made me feel like my whole body was on fire. I have never felt like, I mean, they had expanded my temporary breasts to proportions that felt Pamela Anderson-esque, which was very not me. And I literally felt like an alien. And it was dark, and it was winter, and it felt like this thing was never going to end. And, you know, we have roller skates, my husband and I have roller skates that I bought us long before the cancer journey. Because his old apartment had a lot of space and we used to roller skate around it like a roller skating rink. So, you know, it was Valentine's Day and he's like, "Let's get the roller skates out and let's roller skate." And we have a cook-off every Valentine's Day. So we did our Valentine's Day cook-off in our roller skates, naked in our kitchen. And that's joy mining, right? As horrible as I felt, and as terrible as it was, it's finding those moments of magic and joy in your life that can supersede all of that. Letting yourself go there. And they're everywhere if you just open your eyes and if you are able to create that within yourself. So that's how you find the joy in the midst of the tear-down. It's moments, like we said, "micro moments." It doesn't have to be a great big thing. You just simply allow yourself to sit with yourself and find one great thing about your physical body when you feel like it's turned against you. It doesn't have to be roller skating naked and cooking.
You also had this beautiful practice, a sort of daily integration of your experiences and the changes that were happening to your body, to your mind. Can you talk about that?
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 12:35
As a yoga teacher and a yogi myself and someone that's been doing it for 20 years or so, the way that I could create some sort of baseline was every day I would come up into this room that I'm sitting in right now. Jon can see but you guys can't—there's windows on all three sides and an easel and it's got all my—my yoga studio. And as my body was changing, which it was every single day, I would come up onto this mat that I'm actually sitting on, in my underwear, and I would do my yoga practice. And I was very specific about it being in my underwear, because as my chest was changing, the shape of my body, every single part—my skin was dry—I would have, you know, whatever it was, facing it and getting close to it and then integrating each change and having a moment of gratitude that I could even still move. That I was alive. I was breathing, I was moving on my mat. And allowing that each day, each change to have a moment of gratitude to say like, "Yeah, but I'm here." "Yeah, but I'm here," was the tagline. Or I would do this, like, every time I reached my arms up, which I can't right now, I almost just tried to and I forgot that I had surgery two days ago. Every time I reached my arms above my head in my yoga practice, which you do quite a bit, I would just have a little moment and I would look up and say, "Holy s***, I'm alive." I would just lift my eyes up. And that was the way that I could have a daily touch point with myself. Because it's so easy to ignore, you know, when things are changing in your body and say, "Oh, this isn't happening. I'm in denial." You see so many people that do divorce their bodies in this because they're mad at them. So they're like, "I don't want to live in this body. This body has turned on me. This body is not my friend." So for me coming up here and touching the parts that were different and saying, "This is changing. This feels this way." And then taking stock of it kept me connected even on the days where I did want to divorce my body, to be like, "Bye!"
So there were days when you felt that anger?
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 15:05
Yeah, of course. I had someone ask me in an interview, they're like, "Well, I don't get it. It just sounds like you just, you know, you just were happy all the time and you just chose that." And I was like, "No, absolutely not. I think I did a bad job of explaining how I actually was resilient." No, I felt angry. I felt sad. You know, I would wake up in the middle of the night and I would wake James up and I would tap him on the shoulder and I would say, "Hey babe, am I gonna die?" And he would roll over, he'd wake up and he'd say, "No, babe. You're not gonna die." And I'd say, "Okay, babe." And I'd roll back over and go to sleep. I was scared and I was angry. I was angry that I got a s*** gene and that I had a gene that mutated. I lost the lottery. The way my husband describes it, he says, "And you rolled snake eyes." We have guardian angels, and he and I, our whole lives, have been so lucky. I mean, so lucky. So many amazing things have happened to us. And we've gotten out of some things we shouldn't have, too. Maybe some not smart things we've done. But yeah, of course, I felt anger, but then I didn't let myself be angry. So feeling and being are two different things. If you don't feel all the feelings, then you're in denial. That's just it. But feeling them and then saying, "Alright, cool. I'm mad. But being angry is not going to help this. Being angry is just going to make me feel angry and with cancer. You'll be an angry cancer person. You still have cancer!" I'd much rather, like I say, roller skate naked and have cancer, then be pissed off and dark with cancer. So, you know, you feel it and then you make a choice.
What was the best piece of advice that you got along the way?
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 17:07
Stay present. Stay absolutely in the moment. And then I transmuted that into saying, "Don't forecast." The actual piece of advice I got was, “Don't ask questions. Put your head down and get through it. Don't listen to anyone else. Don't let anyone else tell you their experience.” That was the piece of advice, I just made it sound nicer. No, literally, I had someone be like, "Don't read blogs. Don't go on message boards. Don't be in a cancer group. Cancers are depressing." And I actually quite loved that because it allowed me to have my own experience. Because I did Google and I did go on a message board and it's like Yelp, the bad reviews really stick out. And when you've had a really bad experience, you're going to shout it from the mountain tops. And so, going through this experience, every day I woke up and I said, "Okay, how do I feel today? How do I make that better? How do I feel today physically? How do I make that better? There's drugs for that, right? Usually I call my oncologist. How do I feel today emotionally? How do I make that better?" And those are the things—like that, again, is how I grew as a human. It's very different when you wake up and you're not going through cancer and you're like, "Oh, I feel kind of lonely today. I'm gonna call up my friend and go to lunch." But these are much higher level emotions of like, "Okay, I woke up and I feel like my cancer's gonna come back at any moment. How do I make that better?" By meditating and reminding myself that my body, you know, to trust my body. So it was staying very present and not saying, "This is going to happen. This is definitely going to happen." And it's still how I navigate life after cancer. If you're living in fear of your cancer coming back every day, it’s a day lived in fear, just the same way as a day lived in anger is a wasted day if you ask me.
I want to ask you what you would hope somebody takes away from this conversation.
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 19:18
If I could be any more clear it's that there are some things in life we have no control over. There are some things in life that quite literally just happen to us. But you always have a choice. You always have a choice. Whether or not you want to let yourself sink down into the emotions that you're inevitably going to feel if it's a situation you're in that's not great, which is sadness, anger, fear, all of that. Or you have a choice to look around you and mind the joy. And say, "I'm in this situation. Yeah. We're here. Let's get through it. Let's figure out a way out of it." And in the meantime, you don't get this year of your life back. God is not gonna say, or God, whoever you believe in, I believe in many different things. They're not going to say on the back end, "Hey, you get an extra year, Sarrah! Sorry about that cancer thing. I'm gonna give it back to you later." So you still are living your life. This year I got engaged, this year all these amazing things happened to me during cancer because I opened my eyes to them. So don't waste a day of your life. Don't waste a month, a year, even if you're not where you thought you'd be.
So to bring us back to the present, where are you right now in your journey?
Sarrah Strimel Bentley 20:42
So I just finished my last big surgery. I just finished my last big reconstructive surgery on my breasts. And it feels like I am now on the back end of survivorship, which is living, living my life. Every day when I take my little pills in the morning, I'm reminded that, yes, I had some cancer, and we're not gonna let this cancer come back. And then every time I take those pills, every time I remind myself of that, I'm gonna say, "I get to use this day to do some really magical stuff. I get to use this day ahead of me to live full-out, 100 percent because I know what I've gone through.” So every time I take that little pill, instead of reminding myself, "I had cancer," I'm going to remind myself of all the possibilities that lie ahead of me. So I'm going to write—I'm writing my book, not going to write, I'm in the middle of writing my book. I just started a nonprofit called A Damn Good Life that is going to bring women on a total surrogacy journey who are breast cancer survivors that can't carry their own child and that also aren't able to afford a surrogate. So that is super exciting. So I'm really throwing myself into continuing advocacy for women who are walking this path after me, who have walked it before me and alongside me. So I'm very passionate about that.
Sarrah Strimel Bentley is the creator and founder of Damn Good Yoga. To learn more about her work and advocacy, check out the links in the show notes. Road to Resilience is a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. It's made by me, Jon Earle, Nicci Cheatham, and Emma Stoneham. Our Executive Producer is Lucia Lee. From all of us here, as always, thank you for listening, and we'll see you next time.