Tenacious D: I Was Strong; Cancer Made Me Stronger

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“I want to make every woman diagnosed with breast cancer a rock star.”

Dianne Wilson’s indigo eyes flash fierce and direct, and her muscled arms grab the table for emphasis, daring anyone to challenge her commitment to supporting, empowering, and elevating others who’ve been affected by breast cancer.

Dianne Wilson headshot

“I am strong-willed and strong physically, which served me well during treatment and continues to serve me well,” the Philadelphia-area native said. “And I am honored and grateful to still be here and be able to serve others.”

Diagnosed in September 2015 at age 51 with early-stage hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer, Wilson had lumpectomy to remove the cancer, then four rounds of chemotherapy, then radiation. She’s currently in her third year of tamoxifen. But her breast cancer journey actually started earlier in 2015.

“In February 2015, I had a dream that I found a lump in my breast,” Wilson said. “So the next morning, I felt my breast and found a lump. Things like that are always happening to me. The phone rings, and I know who it is before I answer.”

Wilson immediately made an appointment for a mammogram, which didn’t show anything. She also had an appointment with a breast surgeon, who thought it was a cyst. The surgeon told Wilson to keep an eye on it, but assured her she was fine.

Still, Wilson’s spidey senses were tingling. Her cousin Lori had been diagnosed with breast cancer 16 years earlier. Her cousin Chrissy had been diagnosed with breast cancer twice and continues to be carefully monitored.

By the end of July, the lump had grown. Wilson went back to the surgeon, who agreed to remove it. The biopsy returned a cancer diagnosis, which meant Wilson had to have another surgery because the surgeon hadn’t made sure to remove large enough margins around the lump, still thinking it was just a cyst.

“After the diagnosis, I was afraid,” Wilson recalled. “But I made a conscious decision not to give in to the fear. Then I got angry. Angry that I didn’t insist that that the lump be removed when I first found it. My doctor thinks that in February, it probably was just a cyst, but as it kept growing, it developed into cancer.”

Given her family history, Wilson had genetic testing, but the results were negative.

Rocking through treatment

A self-described tomboy growing up, Wilson always loved to climb, be active, and dance. Her current list of talents and occupations seem endless. She works as a:

  • hairstylist
  • makeup artist
  • Reiki master, for both animals and people
  • massage therapist, for both animals and people
  • choreographer
  • Latin dance performer and instructor
  • aerial and pole instructor and performer, and owner of Higher Artistry, a company that offers aerial and cabaret performances for events and establishments
  • model
  • personal trainer

In the past, she’s also worked as a veterinary technician and is currently taking a course on healing with crystals to be able to offer that service to her clients.

Dianne Wilson aerial

“Hair styling and makeup came first,” she said with a laugh. “Then I got into salsa dancing and studied under one of the top instructors in Philadelphia. I ended up being on the performance team. I had a lot of muscle and wanted to get longer and leaner, so I tried a pole and aerial fitness class, and I loved it. One thing led to another and I became an instructor and performer in the aerial arts. I do a lot of things part-time, but hair, cosmetics, and making women look and feel good is my full-time passion and work.”

Wilson says both she and her doctors believe that her level of fitness was the reason she had minimal side effects from breast cancer treatment. She lost some of her past-the-shoulder-length hair after the second round of chemotherapy, but didn’t suffer the debilitating nausea and fatigue that some women experience. (She still keeps the hair that fell out in a plastic bag.) She had some redness in the radiated area, but no peeling skin or pain.

“Eating well and exercising is a way of life for me,” Wilson said. “It’s important to keep a sense of yourself, a sense of your lifestyle, and not have that be altered too much because of cancer. There is no excuse for ignoring yourself and not caring for yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will do it.”

A mission to inform

Shopping for wigs after her third round of chemotherapy further steeled Wilson’s resolve to be a resource for other women going through breast cancer.

Browsing at a local wig salon, Wilson was shocked to learn the wig she was considering cost $900.

“I was so angry, I was shaking,” she said, the memory still evoking strong feelings. “I am a performer as well as a hairstylist and makeup artist, so I know a lot about wigs. The wigs in this salon were nice, but you can get the same wigs on Amazon for less than half the price. I was outraged. These salons are taking advantage of people’s fear and vulnerability. It’s appalling. If you’ve never had to shop for a wig before, you just don’t know. You don’t know where to look or what a wig should cost. I was different. I knew. And I just couldn’t believe it. I’m on a mission to inform women about wig prices and other things related to breast cancer.

“I’ve always been strong-willed,” she added. “But cancer made me stronger. I know that I am meant to be an advocate.”

With her expertise in hair and makeup, Wilson helps women going through chemotherapy style their wigs to fit their faces and also helps them adjust their makeup as their skin changes from treatment. She also is happy to answer any questions about treatment to anyone newly diagnosed.

“One of my clients was diagnosed and she kept asking me questions about what was happening to her body during chemotherapy,” Wilson said. “I was happy to give her information and suggestions for what to do to help, such as getting myofascial release therapy [a type of manual massage of the myofascial tissues, the membranes that wrap and connect the muscles] to help with muscle stiffness, soreness, and the accumulation of scar tissue that can form after radiation treatment.”

What other advice does she have for people who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer?

  • “Everyone is an individual in how she/he handles treatment. Everything can be customized. For example, my oncologist wanted me to have a certain chemotherapy regimen that involved putting in a port. But because of my aerial and pole teaching — I have to be upside down a lot — I told them I didn’t want to have a port and asked if I could do another regimen without compromising my treatment. My oncologist agreed and switched my regimen. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask if your treatment can be personalized.”
  • “Listen to your body. You know it best. Don’t be afraid to be an advocate for yourself and your body.”
  • “Don’t seclude yourself. Even when you have no hair. Your family and friends can be your greatest support system. Use them. They want to help.”
  • “There are some friends that won’t know what to do. It scares them. They don’t know how to handle you having cancer and they may not be able to give you the support that you expect because of it. This doesn’t have anything to do with you; it’s their fear, so don’t take it personally. Cancer can bring out a lot in your sphere of people: the good, the bad, and the fearful.”
  • “Breast cancer treatment will affect your body. It can really help to do some light exercising. I scaled back my workouts while I was in treatment. I used resistance bands instead of lifting weights and I went to yoga. I kept teaching pole and aerials, but didn’t schedule any performances because I was worried about my stamina.”

Not every woman may have Wilson’s muscles and confidence, but she wants you to know that you’re stronger than you think.

“You may have cancer, but it doesn’t have you, no matter who you are,” she declared. “When you’re diagnosed, it can seem like you’ve been hit in the face with a 2-by-4, but it’s really only a 1-by-3. You do have the mental and physical strength to walk this path with grace.”

Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor


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