“How to start?” ballroom dancer and cancer survivor Steve Valentine asks himself when asked about what’s happened in his life over the last two years.
It was in 2015 when Valentine started getting severe stomach problems. He was referred to a gastrointestinal based in La Jolla at Scripps Green Hospital at the beginning of 2016. “Obviously I’d had a lot of emergency room visits prior to that,” Valentine said. “I mean I was just going through the ringer in trying to figure out what was happening.” Eventually, he was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a highly aggressive cancer. “By the time he found it I had to go in and have emergency life-saving surgery at the hospital,” he told NBC 7.
Valentine, who works in PR, lived between Rancho Bernardo and LA at the time. He was also a same-sex ballroom dance instructor, who in 2007, started competing with another instructor as his partner. They won competitions all over the world and got a gold medal in the Men’s Latin category at the Gay Games in Cologne, Germany in 2010.
After his surgery, Valentine started aggressive chemotherapy. During his time at Scripps, he kept photos of his ballroom dancing days on the wall to inspire his recovery. “I would talk to the nurses about it and how much I wanted to get out of the hospital, you know, maybe try to dance again,” he said. “The twist to the story though is that one of my team members on my case was Dr. Irene Hutchins.” Dr. Hutchins just happened to also be a former ballroom dancer. “That was the crazy, cathartic moment when I realized that, and then we started forming a very close bond beyond just doctor and patient because we had that shared passion for dancing.”
By that time Valentine had lost around 60 pounds as he pushed through his chemo. At that point, Valentine and Hutchins made a decision. “The famous line is that we made a pact that if I would work hard she would work hard and we’d help me get back out on the dance floor – and we did, that’s exactly what we did.”
That’s when he found a reason to dance again. He would even dance through the hallways of the hospital with his chemo stand as his dance partner. “Sometimes I’d have my chemo stand and I’d move it around from side to side and try to do little steps with it,” he said.
Valentine went into remission in the fall of 2016, and the cancer survivor and the doctor started dancing socially around San Diego at places like the La Jolla Marriott’s salsa night and Mary Murphy’s Champion Ballroom Academy.
When they first started dancing Valentine found out Hutchins hadn’t danced in a decade either. “She actually credits me for inspiring her to renew her passion to dance as well,” he said. “I never could have fathomed that I would ignite something in her that she’s very passionate about, not only helping patients like me but of wanting to go back out and share some of her other talents and her passion for dance.”
After dancing for several months together, they performed at Scripps’ Cancer Survivors Day in 2017, they performed for the American Cancer Society’s annual benefit at the U.S. Grant and they kept performing for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s San Diego Chapter to help raise funds.
On May 19, Valentine and Hutchins will be at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Man/Woman of the Year Gala, hoping to raise at least $128,000 – to equal or exceed the current record holder for Woman of the Year for the culmination of their Dancers vs Cancer Campaign.
After surviving lymphoma, Valentine said he was just diagnosed with a melanoma, but it was caught before it transferred to any other organs. “I honestly think and I get emotional when I say this,” he said choking back tears, “because I have the gift of communication I have the gift of being a PR and a promotional guy all my life, and I’m 59 years old and for me to still be able to be alive and to be able to share this story. I think is my destiny. Because when you think about the little kids that have the same thing I had … it’s just not fair, so I’m thinking my life was spared so I can help other people get through one more round of chemo, get through one more needle prick, get through the nurse yelling at you to get up and walk. If I can inspire people just to take one step out of their bed it makes me so happy.”
The Leukemia & Lymphoma Man/Woman of the Year Gala is at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront on Saturday, May 19 at 6 p.m. Click here to donate to Dancers vs Cancer or to buy tickets for the event.