Art Theatre

CANCER DANCER: La Jolla oncologist cuts rugs with her patient

When most people age out of their childhood dreams, that’s it, they’re gone. But Dr. Irene May-Ling Hutchins hit upon a loophole. An oncology and hematology fellow at Scripps Green Hospital, she now ballroom-dances, just like she did before medical school, as a feature act at cancer fundraisers.

“For me, this has given a new life to my dancing,” says Hutchins, kicking back in the clifftop La Jolla home she shares with psychiatrist Arkady Bilenko and her cat, Romeow. “I put it on the shelf for so many years to pursue my education, and now I found a reason to get back on the dancefloor, and I think it’s so much of a better reason than because I’m doing a competition and I’m going to win a trophy.”

In 2016, Hutchins was treating a patient for a highly aggressive lymphatic cancer called Burkitt’s lymphoma. Steve Valentine had so many complications — including bacterial peritonitis and sepsis from a hole that the lymphoma ate through his intestines — his prognosis was not good. His weight had dropped from 175 pounds to 127 pounds and his muscles had atrophied.

“When I would finish a chemo, I would usually relapse and have to go back in the hospital, and that went on for several months,” Valentine says in a separate phone call from his L.A. home.

In addition to founding a public relations firm, Valentine also happened to be a dance instructor with a passion for ballroom. And when he and Hutchins learned of their shared passion, they made a pact. When Valentine recovered, they would dance together.

Steve Valentine, left, and his oncologist, Dr. Irene Hutchins
Steve Valentine, left, and his oncologist, Dr. Irene Hutchins COURTESY BRIAN TO

“To be honest, I almost felt bad saying it because I had a question mark in my head if he was going to survive or not,” Hutchins says.But, six months later, Valentine was in remission and in rehearsals for Scripps Survivor Day, a performance he and Hutchins choreographed to bring together and inspire cancer patients.

“She saved my life,” Valentine says. “I always believed her. I was very confident and excited and enthused to have that goal to work toward. I would use my chemo rack as my dance partner, roll it back and forth and dance through the hallways.”

Dancing in her blood

A native of San Francisco’s North Bay area, Hutchins, 35, started her dance career with ballet lessons at age 7, switching to ballroom when she was 13. She turned professional at age 20, winning a Pro-Am national championship title in international Latin dance.

Ironically, it was not only a medical issue that revived her dancing career, but also one that seemed to end it in the first place. Hutchins badly broke her left leg in a car accident — cracking her tibia all the way through — and wasn’t able to dance for months.

“Even after the cast came off, it was a huge chore just learning how to walk properly again,” she says. “Things that in our dance routines that I taken for granted for years, suddenly were extremely difficult.”

All that couch time afforded her time to think about where she was headed and how fleeting the life of a dancer is.

“I’ve always been interested in biology,” she says, “and to do a career in which I felt like I was helping people in a way that I felt like my soul could be rewarded.”

So she put dancing behind her — at least until she and Valentine crossed paths more than 10 years later.

Their ballroom routine was not the small, one-off hospital event they envisioned. Once word got out, it blew up, landing them a national story on Inside Edition. From there, the fundraiser bookings just kept coming: the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of San Diego’s Man & Woman of the Year gala, a gala for the American Cancer Society and a show coming up at the Mission Brewery on Sat., April 7. It’s now part of Dancers Vs. Cancer, a campaign Hutchins and Valentine co-founded for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

“I realized that we have a great opportunity here to draw attention to something that we care about very deeply,” Hutchins says.

It’s all a bit unconventional, mainly because connecting so emotionally with patients is something doctors — especially cancer doctors — are generally advised against.

“It’s something my mentors have commented on in observing me throughout my fellowship,” Hutchins says, “that I need to set some limits for myself unless I’m not going to be able to survive this. So I take their guidance to a certain extent.

“But, at the end of the day, I got to be me.”

Tickets to see Dancers Vs. Cancer perform on Sat., April 7 from 4-7 p.m. at the Mission Brewery, 1441 L St., are $40. (Visit www.DVCBreweryBash.eventbrite.com for more information.)

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