NPR Story
3:14 pm
Thu January 16, 2014

Dancing Doctor Continues Healing Journey

Dr. Deborah Cohan, a California mother of two, inspired millions by deciding to dance to Beyoncé’s “Get Me Bodied” — with the entire operating room staff — just before her double mastectomy.

Deborah Cohan’s video was viewed by millions and her healing journey continues. Just days ago, she started chemotherapy treatment.

Cohan speaks with Here & Now’s Robin Young about the response to the viral video and the next step in her road to recovery.

People can keep up with her recovery — and her next flash mob — on her Caring Bridge page and Facebook page.

[Youtube]

Interview Highlights: Deborah Cohan

On dancing in the operating room

“I was very carefree in that moment. And it’s just amazing that it was that very intimate moment that happened to be caught on film, and happened to be broadcast and happened to be picked up by millions of people. But it was a very joyous moment, and in fact, I’d had a discussion with the anesthesiologist beforehand. I had asked permission of him, I wanted to make sure at least a few people knew what I was going to be doing. His one request was that he not pre-medicate me, and I said, ‘Well, that would be fine, because dance is my medicine.’ And I was really able to tap into a joyous place.”

On the feedback she’s received

“I’m getting emails – beautiful, incredible emails – every day, and I got one the other day from this woman who has a three-year-old daughter who went into surgery yesterday. And for a few weeks leading up to her surgery, she was watching my video, and this little three-year-old girl, her name is Jewel, was calling herself Deb Cohan. And she went into surgery, she and her surgeon danced to my video one last time before her surgery, and her mother said she was not afraid. And that actually has nothing to do with me; it has to do with the girl was able to look at the video and see herself in me.”

On using dance in medicine

“My surgeon – her name is Dr. Cheryl Ewing at UCSF – was just very open and generous and gracious allowing me to do this. And afterwards, I’ve since talked to her, she said that other patients have requested to dance before their cases, and she has expressed gratitude to me for helping her patients feel less scared before their cases.”

“Perceiving my diagnosis, actually, one of the activities I had started doing as part of my job as a physician at UCSF is I had started dancing with the obstetrics and gynecology residents after rounds, and had started incorporating teaching principles of movement and dance as a way for them, as physicians, to get into their bodies, as a way for them to cultivate their own physical listening skills, to be better physicians and to be better surgeons. So there was a small ulterior motive: as I was dancing with my O.R. staff, I wanted them to be in their bodies as well, and for their physical listening skills to be fully activated.”

Guest

Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Have you seen that new television ad for the search engine Bing? It features some of the most heroic women of 2013: the young activist Malala, long distance swimmer Diana Nyad, Antoinette Tuff, a school employee who talked down a distraught gunman.

(SOUNDBITE OF BING TV COMMERCIAL)

ANTOINETTE TUFF: It's going to be all right, sweetheart. I just want you to know that I love you, though, okay? We all go through something in life.

YOUNG: And then, at the end of the ad, there's Dr. Deborah Cohan, a University of California-San Francisco OB-GYN and mother of two who inspired millions by deciding to dance to Beyonce with the entire operating room staff just before her double mastectomy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: Dr. Cohan's fantasy, she wrote online, was for people around the world to join her and dance wherever you happen to be: in the kitchen, the carwash, the subway platform. And they did.

STEVE LYNCH: Hey, Deborah. My name is Steve Lynch(ph). I'm from Boston, USA. I'm here in India to dance for you and your healing and recovery.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. Here we are in Annapolis again, Deborah. And of 10 of us, there are five who are cancer survivors.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Hey, Dr. Cohan. This is for you. You're awesome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: That's some Drexel University medical students at the end, there. Deborah Cohan's video was viewed by millions. Her healing journey continues. Just days ago, she started chemotherapy, and joins us from her home in Berkeley, California.

Dr. Cohan, welcome.

DEBORAH COHAN: Thank you. It's really wonderful to be here.

YOUNG: What are you hearing from people?

COHAN: Well, I'm hearing from a lot of people that it's tapped into their own sense of generosity and wishing me well on this healing journey of mine.

YOUNG: Well, how did you feel when you started it, this video? You're in the operating room with all these people in scrubs. It's kind of like a medical flash mob, you know, everybody coming in. But you're about to have a double mastectomy. How - I mean, was it - I was wondering if it was the drugs, you know? You seem so just carefree.

COHAN: I was very carefree in that moment. And it's just amazing that it was this very intimate moment that happen to be caught on film and happened to be broadcast, and happened to be picked up by millions of people, but it was a very joyous moment. And, in fact, I'd had a discussion with the anesthesiologist beforehand. I had asked permission of him. I wanted to make sure that at least a few people knew what I was going to be doing. And his one request was that he not pre-medicate me. And I said, well, that would be fine, because dance is my medicine. And I was really able to tap into a joyous place.

YOUNG: Despite the fact of what you were about to do?

COHAN: That's right. Maybe even because of it.

YOUNG: Yeah.

COHAN: You know, when we're faced with fear on such magnitude and we face it and let it wash over us, that leaves enough room for exceptional amount of joy and happiness.

YOUNG: Well, and it doesn't hurt that, boy, can you dance.

(LAUGHTER)

COHAN: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And you've had this attitude, well, since shortly after, you know, learning you had cancer, you decided to name the cancer Izzy.

COHAN: Yes.

YOUNG: And you are a doctor, and had the opportunity to sit down at a microscope and actually look at your tumor. Naming it, looking at it, what did that do?

COHAN: That was an unbelievably opening experience, getting to - I call it meeting Izzy. I got to meet my cancer, and I was working with an exceptional pathologist at UCSF, who invited me to come see my cancer. And that gave me this instant perspective that the cancer was very small and represented just a teeny piece of me. And that, in fact, we have a tendency, I think, as humans, to catastrophize and make things bigger, especially when there's fear attached. And it was - it gave me instant perspective that this was a microscopic, tiny problem, and that I had the tools to confront this issue.

YOUNG: Including what you call your dancer cells, which you plan to out-dance your cancer cells.

COHAN: That's right. They already have. I feel very cancer-free right now. I am going through chemotherapy, but I can just really feel in my body that I'm healthy, and I'm just feeling so vibrant.

YOUNG: Well, how do you feel about, OK, the video is one thing. And when we first saw it a while back, you weren't well enough at that point to, you know, really talk. But now, here you are in this ad.

COHAN: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BING TV COMMERCIAL)

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: So, here I stand, I speak for those without voice can be heard.

COHAN: I was really shocked when they invited me to participate in that, particularly when I saw the other women who were being featured. And what has become clear to me is that, in part, this is about how we humans project onto each other.

YOUNG: You mean people projecting on you. You're in this ad and you represent something to them that maybe you didn't even know you were.

COHAN: Well, not just that I didn't know I was, they didn't know they were. I'm getting emails - these beautiful, incredible emails every day. And I got one the other day from this woman who has a 3-year-old daughter who went into surgery yesterday. And for a few weeks leading up to her surgery, she was watching my video. And this little 3-year-old girl - her name is Jewel(ph) - was calling herself Deb Cohan. And she went into surgery. She and her surgeon danced to my video one last time before her surgery. And her mother said she was not afraid. And that actually has nothing to do with me. It has to do with the girl was able to look at the video and see herself in me.

YOUNG: Well, some might debate you on that one. You know, because I was thinking, I'm wondering if surgeons might be, oh, cursing you for unleashing this whole, you know, I want to dance like Deb Cohan did before my surgery. But it's sounding as if at least one, with that little girl, was onboard.

COHAN: Yes. And I've gotten other emails from people who have been allowed to dance before their surgical cases, and they said it was very transformative - allowed them to alter their attitude. My surgeon - her name is Dr. Cheryl Ewing at UCSF - was just very open and generous and gracious, allowing me to do this. And afterwards, I've since talked to her, and she said that other patients have requested to dance before their cases, and she has expressed gratitude to me for helping her patients feel less scared before their cases.

YOUNG: Well, then maybe the staff, too.

COHAN: Yes. Well, that was amazing. I really didn't know how the staff was going to respond, and it just brought me such intense joy that they really went for it.

YOUNG: No kidding.

COHAN: And I felt like they were really fully playing with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COHAN: And perceiving my diagnosis, actually, one of the activities I had started doing as part of my job as a physician at UCSF is I had started dancing with the obstetrics and gynecology residents after rounds, and had started incorporating teaching principles of movement and dance as a way for them, as physicians, to get into their bodies, as a way for them to cultivate their own physical listening skills, to be better physicians and to be better surgeons. So there was a small ulterior motive: As I was dancing with my O.R. staff, I wanted them to be in their bodies, as well, and for their physical listening skills to be fully activated.

YOUNG: It's quite something. I'm still stuck in the image of that 3-year-old.

COHAN: Isn't that amazing?

YOUNG: Yeah. Yeah.

COHAN: It is amazing.

YOUNG: Well, I mean, you know, days ago - sorry if some people missed it - you again called for a flash mob, not to dance, but to take a single collective breath. This would at 11:30 a.m., Pacific time, on January 9th.

COHAN: Yes. And people emailed me from all over the world, saying that they participated in the virtual meditation mob.

(LAUGHTER)

COHAN: And I did it right at 11:30, because that is when my chemotherapy infusion was starting.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, we wish you nothing but the best as you continue chemotherapy.

COHAN: Thank you.

YOUNG: Deborah Cohan, obstetrician/gynecologist at the University of California-San Francisco, but perhaps better known from her video, dancing in the O.R. with the entire staff just before undergoing a double mastectomy. Deborah Cohan, thanks so much.

COHAN: Thank you so much.

YOUNG: And on January 30th, when she starts her next round of chemo, Deb is calling for a flash card mob. There's more and her video at hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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