Saturday, July 30, 2016

The New Me

As I have talked about in previous blog posts, one of the hardest parts of getting breast cancer is dealing with the physical changes due to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. And there a double whammy with these changes. Not only have they taken a physical and mental toll, but they also wreaked havoc on my career. Because as an actor body image impacts just about everything. It’s not just what you look like, but how you feel in your own skin that makes a difference.

For a few years I put “making money” as an actor on hold as I worked to build up The Seeing Place (my theater company.) But at the beginning of 2015 I made a new commitment to dust off the ol’ headshots & resumes, get back onto the casting websites, and start submitting myself for paying work again. And just as I started to do that, I got my cancer diagnosis and everything stopped. Just stopped. First, it was recovering from surgery. Then, it was being sick during 5 months of chemotherapy. Then, it was having to find the energy to drag myself to radiation treatments every single day for 7 weeks. Once all of this was done in April, one would think that I would be able to start auditioning right away. But the side effects lingered on, and not in ways that I anticipated.

It’s been really upsetting knowing that I had the time to pursue work as an actor but the psycho-emotional/physical impact of the disease and treatment have kept me from putting myself out there. First, I don’t know if I can adequately describe what it’s like to look in the mirror and see someone you don’t know staring back at you. I felt like my identity was ripped from me and I didn’t know who I was anymore. I’d look in the mirror and see an alien - puffed up skin with no eyelashes or eyebrows, short stubby hair, sunken eyes. I hated myself so much that I didn’t take any pictures during this time. I actively avoided the camera unless I was making some kind of funny face - because then at least we could all laugh about what I was doing and we could overlook the way I appeared.

As I’ve mentioned, I lost my hair so it’s taken some time for it to grow to a length that I feel comfortable sharing with the world. I gained about 15 pounds during treatment due to the steroids they had me on to combat chemo side effects. All of the weight that was gained went to my upper body (which is very rare for me but apparently common for steroid weight gain.) Not only did none of my clothes fit, but I hated the way I looked in photos. My face felt fat and my upper body seemed to overwhelm any photo I was in. I was very ashamed of the way I looked, and even though I knew it wasn’t my fault I felt guilty that I couldn’t get my body under control.

It’s taken me about 8 months and I’m just now starting to recognize a “me” that I can relate to and feel comfortable putting out there. I’ve lost almost all of the weight I gained so now I’m working to get to a pre-cancer weight. My scars are starting to heal - they still itch and ache, and I still have tons of swelling that causes pain, but for the most part that can be covered up with clothing. And I’m so relieved to know that my stylist has found a haircut that works for my face and I’m really loving it. I put in a streak of hot pink in my hair as a sort of gift to myself for everything I had gone through. (By the way, one thing that’s weird - sometimes I feel like I have a ponytail and I go to grab it and it’s not there! Is that like a phantom limb? A phantom ponytail??) And in the last few weeks I have started to get some of my old energy back.

So...

It’s time for me to re-introduce myself to the acting community. A new me. And it all starts with new headshots.

I was very nervous for the photo session. I wrote to the photographer that I was anxious about looking heavy in my photos, and I was also questioning my choice to keep the pink in my hair. I just couldn’t bear to remove it, though, and my photographer reassured me that we could do retouching on the photos if I ever took the pink out. So I swallowed all of my fears and last Friday I traveled to the Upper West Side to shoot with Mendez Photography. I had a lot of fun, and though I was a little restrained throughout the process I got some really great shots out of it.

Here are a few from the proofs - they have not been retouched yet so be kind!

Photos by Mendez Photography

I’ve done the task of figuring out exactly the type of work I want to be doing and how I want to promote myself for that work (also known as “branding” in our industry.) So my next step is to update my website and all of the casting websites with my new materials and start putting myself out there. The hope is that I’ll be able to reignite things that way I wanted to before I got sick. And maybe, just maybe, this illness will yield deeper, more expressive work that will bring me an income that will make living in NYC easier and more fulfilling.

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To see my description of what happened the day I was diagnosed, check out my first post, “Yes, I Have Breast Cancer.” And here is a link to all of my cancer posts.

To experience the art I’ve created through grief, come see me in the play GETTING OUT with The Seeing Place Theater - July 16-August 7, 2016.

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Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Your Brain On Cancer

When something traumatic happens in your life, the moment it occurs it's burned into your memory and in your body, never to be forgotten. It’s how people know where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, when the Challenger exploded, when the Twin Towers fell.

On May 15, 2015 I received a phone call that is similarly burned into my memory. The phone call was from a radiologist telling me that the breast tissue they biopsied the day before was, indeed, cancer.

Cancer. Me. Cancer.

From that moment on I was whipped into a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments and disbelief, decisions and numbness, advice and anger and crippling fear.

I remember distinctly that the medical team said that in a year, treatment would be done and I’d be embarking on a new, cancer-free life. They said that this year would fly by, but I didn’t believe them. How could a year that would be filled with 3 surgeries, 5 months of chemotherapy, 7 weeks of radiation, and countless biopsies, scans and tests, “fly by”?

What’s so troubling about this whole concept is not only that they were right - it’s that I barely remember any of it.

Of course I remember all of the details and events, I’m not saying that I have amnesia. But somehow my mind has shellacked those details with a layer of “remove” that keeps me from remembering how hard it was, how much pain I felt, how much fear and anxiety I had, and how alone I felt. Someone might think this remove is a good thing, but I’m feel robbed of the experience that has newly shaped me, and shaped me so completely. To be honest, I feel numb. Numb... all the time.

People ask me how it was to go through chemo and I say, “I tolerated it really well, luckily.” They ask about what it was like to try to save my hair and I say, “It was really hard to lose it, but I’m glad I look ok with short hair.” They ask how I feel these days and I say, "I'm getting better and better!" It’s like I’ve forgotten how devastating the whole ordeal was, to be reduced to sound bites of optimism. The day to day difficulties are just glossed over so that my experience is only as palpable as my last headache or my last heartbreak.

And I’m not meaning to do this. It’s how my brain is allowing things to be remembered in those moments.

I know why the mind does that. It’s such a miraculous thing - it shields the psyche from giving us too much to deal with. How amazing is that? The brain has a way to cloud memory so we don’t remember the depth of physical or emotional trauma. And I could go on very nicely under this guise and just rebuild my life, but I always have this nagging feeling that I’m overlooking something, and I don’t want to do that. The intuitive empath in me won’t let me ignore myself for long.

After treatment ended in April I began seeing a therapist, because I knew that finding healthy ways to manage stress would be important in maintaining my health going forward. What I learned was that there was far more to deal with than just stress management. Unfortunately, I learned that there’s a new battle on the horizon, one that rears its head only after treatment is over -- the battle for my mental well-being.

One of the things I had been beating myself about was the fact that I didn’t “take advantage” of the extra time I had to reflect and plan while I was in treatment. I had reduced my work schedule and had every intention of being proactive with my down time to really focus on my emotional needs. (As I type this, I recognize the oxymoron of that last statement -- being proactive with my downtime? Hello!!) What I found was that I was too tired, physically depressed, and emotionally numb to focus on anything other than surviving the damned treatment. And the workhorse in me has seen that as lazy and self-indulgent.

Is it turns out, there was no real way to deal with my mental health while in a physical battle for my life. We all know that chemo and radiation have devastating effects on the body, so naturally all of my effort went into into merely staying alive. My therapist invited me to see my first year post-physical treatment as the time to be in emotional/mental treatment - which means I’m right on schedule, and at least 8 more months of mental healing to deal with.

So I’m going to be spending some time reflecting on my experiences and posting them here. I’m sharing on this blog for a variety of reasons. One - I hope that other cancer patients & survivors might find some comfort and solidarity in what I'm writing. Two - I hope that I can help people understand what happens to someone who goes through a trauma like this - just because treatment is done we are not "fine" or "finished." Three - I want a place where I’m forced to be open, because it’s way too comfortable to shut everyone and everything out (especially for introverts like me.)

So... I thought I would share some stream consciousness I wrote on the anniversary of my diagnosis:


May 15, 2016.
One year ago today was a Friday.
It’s the day I found out I had breast cancer.

I lost my innocence that day.
The innocence that made me believe that if you do all the right things you’ll be safe.
Because cancer doesn’t discriminate.
Being good doesn’t get you a pass.

I became isolated that day.
Doctors don’t always know the “right” thing to say.
Their focus is on getting rid of the cancer first. All else comes second.
Friends. Family. Colleagues...don’t always know the “right” thing to say.
They just want you to be fine.
And you’re a jerk if you tell them just how un-fine you really are.
Because no one wants to know the truth.
They say they do, but then you have to take care of them, too.

I became a “warrior” that day.
And all other kinds of ridiculous nicknames.
I don’t want to be a fucking warrior for fighting a disease.
I want to be a warrior because I fight for my theater company to have a voice, I fight for actors to find empowerment, I fight to be the best friend, girlfriend, daughter, sister, aunt, boss, coach I can be.
Not for getting cancer. Fucking cancer. I didn’t choose that fight.

I became a sage that day.
Because when I was in high school I had this small inner voice that told me that I would get cancer. That statistics can be in my favor all they want to be, but someone is always on the wrong side of those numbers, and I knew that would be me.
Years later I now accept that my mind and body just know things sometimes.

I became lost that day.
The path has always been obvious, and when it hasn’t I created one for myself.
Now, I know I’m still moving but everything is murky.
Everything has weight. Everything has meaning.

As I type innocence, isolation, warrior, sage, lost - I experience these things like they happened that first time. I’m grieving. I’m aching. And a new experience starts to grow.

If I’m lost, that means there’s nothing left than to be found.
I lost “innocent” but found “sage.”
If I was called a warrior, it must mean I had something to fight for.

Damn it.

I don’t want to be a better person for having had cancer.
I don't want to be an after-school special on self-love.

But even when I want to revel in the darkness, I recognize that’s only defined by the light. And as I allow myself to grief, I start to feel healed. I start to feel lost, and then I realize that I can take ANY path I choose because I can’t see the old one anyway.

So this blog may reveal pain and anguish as I trace my steps at each milestone a year ago, but I’m starting to see that it’s the only way to find my way back to center.

Thanks for bearing with me.


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To see my description of what happened the day I was diagnosed, check out my first post, “Yes, I Have Breast Cancer.” And here is a link to all of my cancer posts.

To experience the art I’ve created through grief, come see me in the play GETTING OUT with The Seeing Place Theater - July 16-August 7, 2016.

---

Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why I Self Produce

As a part of my theater company's 2016 Fundraising Initiative I was asked to write little blog post to help our patrons get to know our members. We were given a little challenge: To start, The Seeing Place asked each of its members 3 questions which they could answer via text or video:

1) What is your hometown?
2) What is your dream role?
3) When was the last time you contributed to a campaign and how did it make you feel?

They then asked is to craft a little blog post about what brought us to The Seeing Place and why it means so much to us. I thought you might enjoy learning a bit about my love for the company!



"WHY I SELF-PRODUCE" BY ERIN CRONICAN

When I was younger I never had any aspirations of being a director or a producer. I was an actor - there was no way I’d overwhelm my life with other things. It was, “Be an actor” or nothing at all.

The last few years in my hometown of San Diego I worked for an amazing organization called the Actors Alliance, a non-profit that helps actors have all of the resources they needed to be professional artists in San Diego. One of our projects was our actor-driven Festival of Short Plays, which would allow actors to sit into the producer’s seat and have a chance to create work for themselves. What was so amazing about co-producing this event is that each year I was able to feel the pulse of the community and curate content that a) our audiences would appreciate and b) would inspire our artists. And all of the sudden a day job which once simply supported my efforts as an actor became a training ground for what would be a life-altering jump into the abyss as a Managing Director of The Seeing Place.

Erin Cronican
(headshots with new hair coming!)
I’ll be honest - when Brandon approached me in 2009 and said, “Hey, I’m starting a theater company, and you’re going to start it with me,” I said no. I’d known Brandon for years, from back in our mutual hometown of San Diego where he worked with me in my final year producing the Festival. I assumed that all he wanted was my producing acumen rather than my skills as an actor, and I wasn’t having any of that! But he wore me down with a promise that we were going to do something different. Actors who led the company would have choices. They would have a voice, an opportunity to have a real say in the art they created. And how can you turn down a promise like that?

So many people describe productions that actors self produce as “vanity projects” and I find that term so disheartening. Where is that distinction when a writer produces their work, or when a director finds a script they love and have a vision to bring it to life? I think that what “vanity project” actually refers to is when someone creates something for their own good or use with no regard for their audience. People fear that actors only want to perform because they like to show off or want personal accolades. But thinking that way does actors a great disservice, and we at The Seeing Place are fighting to return the name of ACTOR to their rightful place as Living Historian - a position that, in the past, held great reverence. Actors are the conduit that allows an audience to see themselves and learn something about the world around them.

A thank you Erin received from Judy Shepard
of the Matthew Shepard Foundation
What is most inspiring to me about being an actor who produces is that I don’t just have a voice in the roles I play - I also have a voice in the organizations we partner with, the audiences I help to develop, and the issues that I’m burning to shed light on. When we did THE LARAMIE PROJECT (2014) I got to dream big about how I wanted to make a real impact, and we were able to partner with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Tectonic Theater Project (who wrote TLP with Moises Kaufman) and multiple other organizations who put humanity over hate. When we did A LIE OF THE MIND I was able to coordinate talkbacks on traumatic brain injuries and violence against women, and our dramaturgy sessions help educate our cast about the very real issues surrounding abuse that is passed down through families. Can you imagine how inspiring it is to be able to make a difference not only on stage in bringing a human being to life, but also off stage with our audiences and our members where the real difference is made?

So when you donate to The Seeing Place, you do more than give us money so that we can act. You are funding a company that teaches its members how to give back to society. You’re enabling our producing staff to mentor dozens of actors to be conscientious self-producers, the way I was mentored back in San Diego. And best of all, you’re a partner in creating art that makes a real difference for its community, which means you’re an artist, too. 


Learn more about Erin at www.erincronican.com

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To help create new work with Erin and The Seeing Place by contributing to our campaign, visit www.TheSeeingPlaceTheater.com


Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.


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