British Columbia

How a Victoria woman got creative and 'loud' to cope with cancer during the pandemic

Kayla Henry, a mother of two, shares the artistic activities that kept her positive while battling cancer during the COVID-19 crisis.

Kayla Henry, a mother of 2, found comfort in dance and dress-up after her diagnosis

A professional dancer, Kayla Henry had worked with the Winnipeg Contemporary Dance Company in Manitoba but was sidelined by illness. She participated in a 'goddess' photo shoot, above, that she says helped get her creativity flowing again. (Ashlene Nairn )

One day last summer, Kayla Henry sensed something changing on her face. A small lump was developing, along with some feelings of anxiety. The healthy and active mother of two and professional dancer visited her family doctor and others, where she says her concerns were dismissed.

That occurred repeatedly during a painfully slow five-week long search for a diagnosis.

Henry's desperate chase led to a life-altering diagnosis — non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare, aggressive cancer. In the next six months, while coping with the pandemic, Henry turned to creative strategies to protect herself and her children aged one and two. 

"We barely left the property, my husband couldn't work because he might bring COVID-19 home," Henry, 33, recalls.

Henry's best friend moved in and her job was to distract the children by taking them to the park or playing with them.

"I did not want them worrying about mommy being sick. For the girls, the memory of the past year is now the year they had fun with Auntie Holly," Henry said.

Another strategy she adopted was to cut her own hair in funky ways, gradually, before it fell out due to the chemo.

"So the girls didn't notice when my hair fell out, they just thought I was playing around with my hair," she said. 

"Then I switched to wigs. That inspired me to start creating characters, dressing up in costumes for fun. I have five or six characters."

Henry dressed as Bernie Sanders. (Submitted by Kayla Henry)

A professional dancer, Henry had worked with the Winnipeg Contemporary Dance Company in Manitoba, but her illness sidelined her art. Then Victoria photographer Ashlene Nairn offered her a free goddess photo shoot.

"The goddess photo sessions are meant to empower women. It became so important in the middle of my treatment," Henry said. 

"It was freezing cold by the ocean. I was weak and scared. I expressed myself where I was at that moment in the journey. I wanted to look back at the photos and see that I was able to find strength and was able to persevere."

Kayla Henry, prior to her cancer diagnosis. (Submitted by Kayla Henry)

Friends and family raised $40,000 in a GoFundMe campaign: $25,000 paid for alternative therapies and drugs not covered under B.C.'s medical services plan; psychological counselling to stay positive; naturopathic treatments; vitamin C transfusions and costly anti-nausea medications. 

Henry says one of the worst parts of the experience was not being taken seriously when she first sought medical assistance. Those six weeks searching for an answer pushed her to advocate for herself.

"I got loud," she said. 

Henry dressed as a newborn. (Submitted by Kayla Henry)

She felt the system was failing her. Eventually she went to two hospital emergency departments before finally learning that the small lump on her cheek was a tumour.

"I was all alone when I got that news. Because of the pandemic, my husband wasn't with me at the emergency. It was hard. It was scary," she said.

Henry was also alone at the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions nine months later in February 2021 when she had her first clear scan showing she was cancer free.

"I was so energized. I didn't want to waste time. Every day has become a true blessing. I dove right in," she said.

She immediately registered her new company Noble Riot Dance Theatre with hopes of providing pop-up dance performances in Victoria this summer, hopefully in a post-pandemic world.

CBC has contacted the Island Health Authority for comment but has yet to receive a reply. 

LISTEN | Kayla Henry talks to CBC's The Early Edition about her cancer journey during the COVID crisis:

With files from The Early Edition