As told to Erica Rimlinger
The chemotherapy treatment center has a subdued, sterile energy. Since I’m fighting metastatic breast cancer, I spend a lot of time there. My friends and family have loaded me up with books, tea mugs and quilts to help me while away the hours during my chemo treatments. But I’ve never been one to sit quietly in a chair, drinking tea and staring out the window.
I started frequenting chemo centers in 2017 when I was 29 years old and diagnosed with breast cancer. Two years later, the cancer spread to my lungs, and in January 2022, to my brain. My radiation oncologist told me she “stopped counting after 30 tumors” on my MRI. We decided to do brain surgery to take out the largest, whole tumor. Brain radiation followed, then I started a new chemotherapy regimen for the third time in five years. This time, the stakes seem even higher than before.
In the treatment room, I’m usually the youngest person hooked up to the IV of eerie-looking fluids — and I’m always the only one hooked up to the IV wearing costumes and stage makeup, performing my heart out for lip-sync videos.
When I first started chemo, I knew what to expect in terms of side effects and fallout, but I didn’t know what the actual chemotherapy session would be like. At my first session, I watched a nurse hang a blood-red bag of infusion liquid. She had to wear protective gear so it wouldn’t touch her skin. The color alone made it look like a poisonous potion that I was allowing someone to inject into my veins.
Luckily, I had a distraction ready to go. I’d been told to have a “hobby” during treatment, but a book or needlepoint wasn’t going to do it for me. I’d decided to come to treatment with the song “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson, and create a lip-syncing video to post and share with my friends and family who were so worried for me. I wanted to show them that I was defiant and that everything would be OK. My illness made them sad, and I wanted to make them smile again.
Molly plays dual roles: Annie and Daddy Warbucks during chemo, 2017. (Photo/Molly Young)
I began making the videos to entertain myself. As a professional singer and pianist, performing has always been a natural part of my life. The time I spend at chemo can be tedious, stressful and tiring, but that time is still mine, and it’s precious. Why not perform and create something that makes me, and maybe even others, happy?
The first couple of videos I made were pretty basic. I had no real costume, just red lipstick. I taped my phone to my chemo chair to film. As I came up with more and more ideas that made me laugh, my costumes and makeup got more elaborate. I used a split screen shot to do a duet as both Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks — complete with a botched but hilarious moment of throwing an apple between them with imperfect timing. Whether I’m performing Broadway or Disney in the chemo chair, the theme is always the same: having a good time.
When Molly commits to a role, she goes all out, down to the teeth. Channeling Beetlejuice, 2021. (Photo/Molly Young)
My family and friends love the videos, and I found I was so happy to have something positive to share with them. I didn’t want my social media feed to depress people with just news of the progression of my disease. As transparent as I wanted to be about the reality of my situation, I also wanted to balance that with something that could make everyone laugh.
I’ve always performed quietly, enclosed in a curtain, because I don’t want to disturb others’ space and desire to sleep through chemo. My amazing nurses are always entertained to see the costume of the day and often help me out by finding me a corner space out of the way or an enclosed room. I like to think it brings a little fun to their workday too.
I understand my energy is a privilege. As a freelance singer and music teacher, I was incredibly lucky to have been able to get health insurance through the government’s Affordable Care Act just a few weeks before I found the lump in my breast that led to my diagnosis. (I almost didn’t tell my general practitioner about the lump at that checkup because speaking it into existence made it seem more real.) My plan allows me to get treatment worry-free. Not everybody has the privilege of not haggling with their insurance company over every life-or-death treatment decision.
Singing “The Impossible Dream” from “The Man of La Mancha,” 2021 (Photo/Molly Young)
I’m also privileged in my support system. Not everybody has a partner like my husband, who is a doctor and a wonderful person who advocates for me and often translates the medical jargon. Because I have strong family and friend support, I have more bandwidth to use my energy in a creative way. By feeding my creativity, my creativity feeds me, fueling my ability to keep pushing back against this horrible disease. I still sing, I still teach, I still come up with the next silly idea for the next silly video. It’s this ability to perform, to make something out of nothing, that keeps me from shutting down.
I am grateful for the responses and messages from viewers and enjoy hearing that my video brought a smile to other women who are having a tough time coping with their diagnosis or the diagnosis of a loved one.
This fight against cancer has shown me I have more defiance and resilience than I ever knew. I’ve also learned that serious illness doesn’t always have to be serious. Through all the trials and tribulations, there’s room for joy, a song or two — and even a few crazy wigs.