Sunday, February 1, 2015

"And Then I'll Live Happily Happy...": MGP and My Battle With Pancreatic Cancer

By Brittney-Jade Colangelo

I've never been subtle about my disdain for Cleveland, OH.  I am a born and bred Chicago girl, and moving to Northeast Ohio was an incredibly strange and difficult adjustment.  Wait, you don't have a huge public transit service? Excuse me, you don't have an NHL team?  Hold the phone: YOU HAVE FLAT PIZZA?!  I can already hear you from the other side of the internet screaming, "If you hate it so much, why did you move here?"  The answer: Cleveland has an incredible theatre scene.

I had lived in the suburbs of Cleveland for only a month and a half when I saw an ad saying "MIGHTY GOLIATH PRODUCTIONS PRESENTS: ONCE UPON A MATTRESS AUDITIONS!"  Immediately, I knew I had to go. ONCE UPON A MATTRESS was one of my favorite musicals, and I had a bitter vendetta about losing the lead role on a school-rule technicality back in high school that needed to be remedied.  I was extremely excited to start audition preparations when I saw the little asterisk of *volunteer*.  If there's one thing I learned growing up near Chicago, if someone wants you do perform your art without paying's probably not worth your time.  I had all but written off MGP when I decided to check out their website before making any final decisions.

"Mighty Goliath Productions, most often referred to as MGP, is a musical theatre company comprised of adults, teenagers, and children from all over Lorain and Cuyahoga Counties that contributes funds towards the Performing Arts Department of Avon Lake High School, as well as the Endowment Fund for Avon Lake Public Schools. They have donated over $228,000 in proceeds to the Avon Lake Public Schools since 1959. The organization continues to be entirely comprised of volunteers who donate their time and talent as performing artists, technicians and administrators."

A theatre company donating their profits to the school theatre departments?  Okay. Yeah. I'll audition.

I showed up to the auditions and was immediately greeted by some of the most energetic and encouraging people.  Always afraid of being late, I was the first to arrive.  After filling out my audition paperwork, I sat in a room when it suddenly began to fill with dozens of people, all of whom spoke with one another like they were family.  I knew immediately that I wanted to work with these people.  I was called a week later and offered the role of "Princess Winnifred" one of the leading roles.  There were happy tears and an excited phone call to my mother.  My first audition in Ohio, and I nailed it.
Some of my favorite stills from ONCE UPON A MATTRESS

At our first read through, everyone introduced themselves and began saying how many shows they had done with MGP.  "This is my third show, this is my ninth show, this is my 30th show..."  I was amazed at the commitment from most of these people, and knew there must be something special about this group if they were coming back for more years than I had been alive on this earth.  The rehearsals for the show were hectic, frantic, and a ton of fun.  I made my first real friends since moving into a new time zone, and I finally started to feel like I might be able to find my place in this new chapter of my life.  As many people know, show weekends can be pretty intense.  I was running back and forth between job interviews and didn't have much time to breathe, let alone eat.  The stress and frantic nature of the show caught up to me, and I got sick.  In the middle of a Sunday Matinee, I felt extremely ill. In between scenes I was chugging water, pacing, and praying that I wouldn't throw up on stage.  Once the show had concluded, I changed out of costume and drove myself to the emergency room.  The doctors weren't really sure what was going on with me, so they did every test under the sun just to be safe. Blood tests, urine tests, CT scans, ultrasounds, everything. And that's when they found it. 

"We're not entirely sure what is making you feel ill, but there is something we need to tell you. Ma'am, we have noticed a large mass on the tail end of your pancreas. We are going to transfer you to University Hospital's Main Campus for a biopsy."

Within a week, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 23. I didn't want to freak anyone out at the show so I told everyone "the tumor is fine, but it has to come out." I was lying through my teeth. I knew I had cancer, I just didn't want to ruin the show.  After closing night, I came clean on Facebook and announced to everyone the truth. I had a rare form of a neuroendocrine tumor the size of a tennis ball on the tail of my pancreas. The type of cancer I had is similar as the one that killed Steve Jobs.  To put it into perspective for you, I had a 4% survival rate.  FOUR PERCENT.  I was in another timezone, I didn't know anyone, and I was dying.
Two weeks after the show: Missing a spleen, 40% of a pancreas, a tumor, and 22 lymph nodes
My surgery was scheduled two weeks after the show ended. Pumped with one round of chemo (that did absolutely nothing) and some radiation, doctors removed my spleen, 40% of my pancreas, the tennis ball sized tumor, and 22 lymph nodes.  A week before, I was jumping on top of a table and belting my face off. Now? I was crying while clumps of brown curls intertwined the bristles of my hairbrush and trying not to laugh/sneeze/cry/hiccup/burp/cough/yawn/or take big breaths. I had staples across my abdomen, I wasn't allowed to go anywhere without a guide, and I couldn't eat solid food for almost a month.  I was a mess.  

Luckily for me, MGP was there.  The second I was out of the hospital, I had people offering to cook me dinner, clean my house, do my laundry, and most importantly...just sit and talk with me about something other than "how are you feeling?"  I was new in town and didn't know a single soul, and when I needed someone more than anyone, the MGP family came out in droves.  The doctors still aren't sure what made me feel so sick, but they know my symptoms were unrelated to the cancer.  If I hadn't auditioned for ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, I wouldn't have gone to the hospital.  I was so proud of this show that I wanted to fix whatever was making me feel sick as soon as possible, and it saved my life.  Cleveland may have a sad excuse for pizza and some abysmal pot holes (seriously guys, fix that), but it brought me to MGP, and with that, brought me the greatest support system I've ever known. 

Next week I will miss the first full run through of SEUSSICAL: THE MUSICAL! because I will be undergoing my next (and hopefully last!) surgery.  Once it's over with, I should be cured and cleared of this pesky cancer.  Normally, I'd be a nervous wreck...but I'm not because I know that I'll be returning to a supportive and welcoming group.  

My new family.

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