Jennifer Burke used to prize her breasts as her best feature. But it wasn’t until she had a double mastectomy that she found herself performing a burlesque striptease in front of an enthusiastic New York City crowd.
Pink Light Burlesque, a free program for breast cancer survivors, helps women reclaim and celebrate their bodies — to the delight of an audience. “I felt so empowered,” Burke says of her performance. “We are survivors and we want to celebrate that by overcoming the very thing that scares us — taking our clothes off in public!”
Burke was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the lymph nodes, at the tender age of 19. “I was really angry. I hated life,” recalls Burke, now 42. “The only thing I knew about the disease was that a distant relative had died from it, and that really scared me.”
Five years later, after successful treatment with mantle field radiation therapy, doctors found another occurrence of Hodgkin’s lymphoma — this time, in her groin. They hadn’t treated her pelvis with the first round of radiation treatment for fear of affecting her fertility.
Burke beat her cancer for a second time with chemotherapy. She began to exercise frequently and eat healthier. But 16 years later, Burke found a lump in her breast during a routine self-exam. “It turns out that all the radiation treatment I received as a teenager for Hodgkin’s was the cause of my newly found breast cancer,” Burke says. “I felt like the rug was being pulled out from underneath me.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, survivors of Hodgkin’s disease have three times the risk of developing another cancer than do people who have not been diagnosed with the disease. Overall, the risk of a second cancer is more than 20% in the first 20 years after treatment, and the risk is highest when patients are treated with mantle field radiation.
“This is why I wanted to be part of the first Pink Light Burlesque show,” says Burke, who still has Stage 1 cancer, but is forgoing further treatment due to financial concerns and a reluctance to undergo hormonal therapy. “I wanted to bring awareness not only to breast cancer, but to the fact that there are thousands of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer as secondary cancer caused by radiation treatments they received earlier in life.”
More information on Pink Light Burlesque’s free program for breast cancer patients can be found at PinkLightBurlesque.com.