“I Dance for Life!”

By Kathleen Engel

He’s tap-danced on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and sung and played guitar for the American Idol judges—and that’s since osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, took his right leg in May 2010. While a lengthy and difficult cancer battle was definitely not part of Evan Ruggiero’s plans as he started his 2009 college sophomore year, it’s just been a detour for the determined musical theater major. “I always had the mind-set, ‘I’m going to beat this,’ ” says Evan. “And I did!”

The pain started in his right leg. Evan, who’s taken dance classes since he was 5, figured he’d hurt it dancing. Still, he went to an orthopedic surgeon to investigate. When an X-ray showed a suspicious mass, his doctor sent him to a cancer treatment center in New York City. A month after he started college, the New Jersey native was diagnosed with cancer of the bone.

Since his 2009 diagnosis, Evan has had 12 surgeries—including one to amputate his leg above the knee once the cancer had spread—plus 16 months of chemo. It wasn’t easy, admits Evan. “I did have a lot of rough days and anger. I had lots of questions—I would talk to my doctors about it. They reminded me that I was dealing with a dangerous disease. Lots of people go through chemo and have incredible outcomes. I did!”

But at different points of the chemo journey, there are different concerns, he says. To better cope with your journey, here’s what Evan recommends doing before, during and after chemo!

If you’re starting chemo
Evan’s advice:
“Let your family and friends in.”
“Chemo is one reason why I am standing strong today,” says Evan. “But it took a while to wrap my mind around doing it.” So he did a lot of research and listened to his doctors. But it was one of his friends who convinced him. “He said, ‘I love you, man. Just do it. You can beat this.’ It was the support of him and my family that got me in the right mind-set, as well as talking to others who’d conquered chemo—people who told me, ‘You’re going to be fine.’ ”

If you’re in the middle of chemotherapy
Evan’s advice:
“Don’t shut down.”
“The middle of chemo is toughest. The side effects are hitting you. On my 20th birthday I was getting chemo and I wasn’t happy. I wanted to give up. Then I started watching the kids on my floor. They were playing as  if nothing was wrong! They inspired me to keep fighting.” One little boy approached him and asked where his foot was. “We walked around together. That’s all it took to get me smiling again.”

When he was troubled, Evan talked to a hospital psychiatrist. Problem was, his pain wasn’t under control and he found himself exploding. “I’d flip out and start yelling—at my mom or a nurse.” The psychiatrist gave him a suggestion: “Just imagine a stop sign in front of your face. Every time you’re about to blow up, pay attention to it and take a breath. Then say what you have to say in a calm manner.” It obviously worked, because Evan enjoyed a good relationship with the doctors and nurses who cared for him.

If you’ve just finished chemotherapy
Evan’s advice: “Jump back into everything you were doing before.”
“I never think too much about recurrence,” says Evan, who immediately went out for Mexican food once he finished chemo in October 2011 (he couldn’t eat anything spicy while in treatment). A week later, he put on his peg leg and started tap-dancing. “After being told I’m cancer-free, I felt, This is it. I’m alive! I know my doctors did everything they could.

“I live my life in a forward direction,” adds Evan, who’s begun his musical theater career with performances in New York City. “I’ve had all these struggles. It’s time to dance again.”

Published April 2014

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