As a ballerina in the elite Joffrey company, Maggie Kudirka put off worrying about a hard, raised lump above her left breast. Just a few weeks away from turning 23, she reasoned that it was most likely a ballet injury, and couldn’t be breast cancer.
“I thought I had just pulled a muscle,” Kudirka, now 25, tells PEOPLE. “Being a dancer, I could not take time off and risk losing my parts, so I continued dancing without telling anyone about my ‘injury.’ “
Plus, with her hectic schedule of practice six days a week from 9 to 5, and the chance of going on tour at a moment’s notice, Kudirka didn’t have time to see a doctor.
When she finally got an appointment in June, four months after she first discovered the lump in February 2014, Kudirka learned that she not only had breast cancer — it was a “very aggressive, fast-growing, triple positive stage 4 breast cancer with a very poor prognosis,” she explains — a median life expectancy of two to three years and a five year survival rate of less than 20 percent.
“My whole world turned upside-down,” Kudirka says. “I wondered if I would ever dance again. I didn’t know how to respond — I just started crying uncontrollably.”
Time was immediately of the essence, so she moved back home with her parents in Maryland, and started treatment on July 1.
“When breast cancer strikes someone under age 30, it is usually very fast-growing and frequently metastatic at initial diagnosis,” Kudirka says. “For many young women, by the time a lump is felt, the cancer has already spread to the bones, brain, liver or lungs, as happened to me.”
Kudirka started with chemotherapy infusions, and once those ended, she had a double mastectomy, a “silver lining” for the dancer.
“I was extremely happy to get a double mastectomy because my breasts were abnormally large,” she says. The surgery “would give me the dancer’s body that I had dreamed about for over 10 years … [and] remove the source of my cancer.”
“The day after my surgery, my mom said that I looked the happiest she had ever seen me.”
Kudirka now has “maintenance” infusions every three weeks to keep the cancer at bay. After two years of treatment, she’s had a total of 41 infusions that have allowed her to maintain parts of her old lifestyle, but with complications.
“Since most breast cancer patients are older women, many of the drugs and treatments that have been developed work only in post-menopausal women,” she explains, adding that the infusions have put her in menopause at age 25. She also deals with dizziness and weakness that limits her from dancing as much as she used to.
But when Kudirka can dance, she’s on top of the world.
“Cancer changes your perspective pretty quickly,” she says. “I am grateful for every day that I am healthy and strong enough to dance. 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.”
During chemotherapy, Kudirka dubbed herself the “Bald Ballerina” on social media, and was thrilled with an outpouring of support from across the country. She set up a donation website on YouCaring.com to help with her mounting medical bills, and though her near-constant treatment precludes her from rejoining Joffrey, she teaches ballet nationwide and performs on a freelance basis “whenever I can.”
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“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,” Kudirka says. While my doctors have kept the cancer stable, it could change in the blink of an eye. I will keep dancing as long as I can. It is what I live for and it is what keeps me alive.”