Beset by rare cancer, a dancer finds her steps

Tracey Katona had choreographed hundreds of dances for adults, kids, elite athletes and celebrities. But this was her first performance as a cancer patient.

The OHSU Department of Radiation Medicine was bubbling with excitement, its staffers grinning from ear to ear. Katona made some last-minute adjustments to positions. And then the music started: “Ring My Bell” by Anita Ward. Team members boogied and spotlighted Katona as she rang the ceremonial bell to mark the end of her radiation therapy.

Photo: OHSU Radiation Medicine staff Adrian Posteuca, Ramon Sison, Rebecca Botaitis, Amy Welsheimer, Ellyssa Szlavich, Mayra Martinez-Iniguez, Maleah Large and Makayla Prichard pose with Tracey Katona, center. (Cassidy Tyre/OHSU)“I tell stories through movement,” she says. “I dance when I’m happy or sad, celebrating or processing—it’s my therapy.”

During appointments, she sang with the team. She connected with radiation therapist, Ramon Sison, over their shared admiration of Barbara Streisand. They harmonized on duets like “Endless Love”.

Radiation therapist Ramon Sison would sing with Tracey Katona while setting her up for treatment. (Photo provided by Tracey Katona)

In a role reversal, Katona also suggested stretches and exercises to help her care team relieve aches from long days on their feet.

“I am so grateful for the radiation medicine team at OHSU,” she says. “They lifted me up and helped me through this scary and dark time with fun moments.”

“If I needed to cry, they held my hand. Other times, we sang together.”

It was especially busy in the department the day she completed her treatment. A machine was down and the team was scrambling to keep things running smoothly. Even though she had choreographed it in advance, taught it to the front desk and care teams and they practiced it, she did not know if anyone would be able to break away and dance with her.

“It filled my heart when everyone came together to do this with me,” she says. “They will always have this dance and this memory, and so will I.”

A lifetime of movement 

Katona started dancing when she was five. She trained on a scholarship in New York and became a professional ballet dancer, spending most of her career with the American Repertory Ballet Company. To stay healthy, she started the mind-body workout, Pilates, and later became a certified Romana’s Pilates instructor.

When she retired from dancing professionally, Katona moved to Oregon and taught ballet at the Oregon Ballet Theater.  She also taught Pilates and the New York City Ballet Workout for employees at Nike headquarters. Her classes were always filled to capacity and had wait-lists.

At Nike, she was hired to work on former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move! Active Schools” campaign to increase exercise for kids in schools and communities nationwide. She choreographed moves for 12 athletes, including Bo Jackson, gymnast Gabby Douglas and tennis player Serena Williams, for the program’s launch event at Chicago’s McCormick Place in front of nearly 6,000 Chicago school kids. Katona also performed with Michelle Obama at the event.

“There was a freestyle part at the end and Michelle asked me what she should she do. I said ‘anything you want—I’ll follow your lead!’” Obama asked if they could brush off their shoulders and Katona smiled. “The two of us looking at each other and brushing our shoulders off is one of my most memorable moments.”

“It was incredibly fun and such a busy day that I didn’t have time to really let it sink in,”  she says. “I called my parents from a cab afterward and cried. It was an amazing day.”

Tracey Katona dances with Michelle Obama, students and athletes at McCormick Place, Chicago. (Photo provided by Tracey Katona)

Katona teaches dance at the wellness resorts Canyon Ranch and Miraval in Tucson, Arizona. People come from all over to unleash their inner dancers. You can find her teaching all styles—from ballet to jazz to hip-hop. She even created a 50’s dance class in honor of her dad. Participants practice all week and can perform at the end of their stay.

During the pandemic, Katona and her colleagues offered classes virtually. “I’d tell people to dance like no one is watching,” she says. “At that time, literally nobody was!”

At an in-person class, a woman approached Katona with a question a friend, Roberta, who was recovering from brain surgery. The woman was confident that Roberta would benefit from Katona’s class but she didn’t know how she could participate because she couldn’t move around. Katona invited  her to come to all the classes she wanted to that week—and she did. She sat, watched and listened to the music.

One year later, an unfamiliar looking woman approached Katona at a dance class. “It’s good to see you,” she said, “It’s Roberta. You helped save my life.”

“I didn’t know the steps” 

As a dancer, Katona is highly attuned with her body. She had been experiencing pain and hadn’t felt like her herself for more than a year. She knew something wasn’t right.

After some tests and scans, her radiation oncologist called with unwelcome news. Katona had a 9-centimeter tumor on her spinal cord and another on her sacrum, where her spine connects to her pelvis. The diagnosis was myxopapillary ependymoma with a drop metastasis, an extremely rare cancer typically seen in older men and young children. There wasn’t a lot of data available about cases like hers.

“I felt lost,” she says. “It was like I was in a performance but didn’t know the steps.”

She had three surgeries in the course of a month. Roughly 70% of her tumor was removed and she lost feeling in her left leg. She was in the hospital and rehabilitation for two months.

Tracey Katona at Nike headquarters (photo provided by Tracey Katona)

George Balanchine, one of the most influential ballet choreographers of the 20th-century, once said, “Why are you stingy with yourselves? Why are you holding back? What are you saving for – for another time? There are not other times. There is only now. Right now.”

It has stuck with Katona, who is focusing on the “now” and healing and taking things one day at a time. Some days are better than others. She finds joy in her studio in Beaverton, Katona Pilates. She is passionate about helping people move with control and grace and meeting them where they are.

“Getting a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment can make you feel isolated and invisible at times,” she said. “I’m relieved that I completed my radiation therapy and grateful that the radiation medicine team was by my side through this process.”

“Dance is part of my soul,” she said. “I am still dancing in my heart.”


This survivor story was written by Darsen Campbell-Prissel, senior communications specialist at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

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