"Ballet is a lot harder than battling cancer," Peyton Richardson tells PEOPLE

By Tiare Dunlap
Updated December 31, 2015 05:50 PM
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Credit: Courtesy Northwestern Mutual

Peyton Richardson fell in love with ballet at 3 years old when her mom took her to see The Nutcracker. After 10 years of dedicated practice, not even her leukemia diagnosis has gotten in the way of her dream.

“Cancer has taken a lot of things from me,” Peyton, 13, tells PEOPLE. “It’s taken my hair, it’s taken some friends, it’s taken school – I won’t let it take ballet.”

Despite 11 months of aggressive treatment for Acute Lymphocitic Leukemia, the girl from Sugar Lake, Texas, has continued to practice ballet at every opportunity. When her doctor suggested she enter a contest envisioning her greatest adventure, she produced an answer almost immediately.

With help from her mom, Peyton sent in a submission video detailing her dream of traveling around the world to visit the greatest ballet companies to see them perform and dance with them.

Peyton’s dream became the inspiration for a float designed just for her to ride in the 127th annual Rose Parade this Friday. The float was dedicated to Peyton by Northwestern Mutual as part of its efforts to raise awareness for the fight against childhood cancer.

Peyton says it’s this mission – not the beautiful dress, not all the attention – that has her most excited about the big day.

“I want to show people that it doesn’t matter if you have cancer or you’re sick you can do anything you want, you just have to believe in yourself,” she says.

A Sudden Change

After falling in love with ballet at just 3 years old, Peyton dedicated herself completely, working her way up from once-a-week rehearsals at a local dance studio to practicing three hours a day, five days a week.

In December 2014, Peyton performed in The Nutcracker in pointe shoes for the first time.

“She danced beautifully,” Carrie Richardson, Peyton’s mom, recalls.

Four weeks later, everything changed. “I went to her ballet class and she could barely do a combination across the room, she wasn’t talking to her friends and she couldn t get up on her point shoes. Right then I knew something was wrong,” Carrie says.

The family’s pediatrician suspected leukemia. He ordered a battery of blood tests and told Carrie she’d be receiving one of two calls when the results came in.

“He said if the nurse calls you, it’s not leukemia and if I call you, I’m sending you to Texas Children’s Hospital,” Carrie recalls. “I asked him to call my husband’s phone because I couldn t take that call.”

Two hours later, the phone rang. The hospital was ready to take Peyton in.

“Peyton had never been sick, she’d had one ear infection in her entire life,” Carrie says. “She was a very healthy, active child so when they told us, we were just numb.”

The young girl began a three-year treatment program the next day, spending seven days in the hospital. When the family came home after that first treatment, they were greeted by a dazzling surprise.

“We came around the corner there were orange [the color for leukemia awareness] ribbons tied up and down every tree on our street and around the corner,” Carrie says. “Almost a year later they’re still there, [the neighbors] have refreshed them as they faded.”

“When people come into our neighborhood and they see these orange ribbons they say it takes their breath away,” she continues. “It’s a reminder that childhood cancer can happen to any family. It’s something we never expected and we’re so thankful for our community.”

A Source of Strength

True to her mission of not letting leukemia take her beloved dance away, Peyton has practiced ballet throughout treatment. She says it has been a persistent source of strength and hope through the eleven months she calls “a whirlwind of chemo.”

“Ballet is a lot harder than battling cancer,” she says. “Because with ballet you have a million things going through your head and you have to keep your stomach engaged and point your feet and smile on top of everything.”

“With cancer, yeah it’s hard and yeah you have to get chemo and you are going to lose your hair but it will grow back, the chemo might have some side effects but eventually you’ll be done,” she continues.

Ballet, however, will be a lifelong challenge, Peyton says – and one she’ll be happy to meet.

“I love going to dance. It has just really helped me forget everything that’s going on and express myself,” she explains. “If I feel good enough I’ll go, sometimes an hour after chemotherapy.”

“I’ve changed in the parking garage of the hospital, I’ll do everything I can to get there,” she adds.

Peyton took a break from ballet on Wednesday to help decorate her Rose Parade float with her little brother.

“It’s just stunning,” Peyton says of the nearly completed float. “All the details are so intricate and it’s perfect, I love it.”

She admits she has practiced her wave “a little bit” for the big day, and thought a lot about what it will mean to her family. Her mom has, too.

“They’ve been working on this for months and months and it has been something for all of us to look forward to together as a family,” Carrie says. “For all of us to be together away from the hospital and chemo and all those things that consumed us this year, it’s a breath of fresh air.”