Your only daughter Andréa had cancer as a child. How old was she when she was stricken and can you share a bit of what that experience was like for you?At 18 months of age, Andréa seemed to be a healthy, chubby and cheerful little girl.One night at the dinner table I noticed her hand tremble. Within 24 hours she lost all of her motor coordination so that she could not sit, crawl or stand. I was 27 years old (really just a kid myself…when I look back) and we rushed her to the neurologist and she was admitted to the CT Children’s Medical Center with a diagnosis of viral encephalitis. After a week of tests we were ready to be released and Andréa became uncharacteristically irritable. An intern entered the room and began to examine her. She immediately felt something in Andréa’s abdomen and she called for many more tests which led to an xray that includes an IV drip with dye while Andréa’s tiny body was strapped to a board to keep her still. That was when the tumor (neuroblastoma) that was wrapped around Andréa’s kidney was discovered. I was alone in the xray room when a doctor came in to bluntly tell me that it was cancerous and that she would require surgery to remove her kidney and chemotherapy, etc. Luckily, my mother and sister were still in the hospital and I summoned them to the xray room so that the doctor could explain it to them as I was unable to process what I had just heard.What helped you to get through that period? Would you say like Jane Seymour feels, that the survival instinct runs in your family?My family is very close. Even though I lived 2 hours from them, Andréa being the first grandchild was the center of everyone’s life. They immediately contacted our family doctor in NY and he urged us to take Andréa to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where this kind of pediatric cancer would be treated with state of the art medicine. I would say that it was the support of family that got me through that period. We relocated to NY from CT for the 4 months that Andréa was treated. Round the clock vigilance on the part of my parents, grandmother, sister and brother kept Andréa distracted with gifts and hours in the playroom, while I kept waiting to wake up from this bad dream. None of us had ever faced a crisis of this magnitude. I was convinced that through the sheer power of the love I felt for my only child that I could pray hard enough to turn this around; just dealing with the neurological side effects that the tumor had caused was so painful to see. Watching the children around us who were back in the hospital for recurrences was what shook me to the core. But God was good and my fervent prayers were answered. Andréa’s coordination slowly came back and her once a month check ups became less frequent and she was cured.
Do you think that surviving cancer instilled in Andréa a desire to help other children from the start?
Most definitely!!! Andréa was so very compassionate. Especially toward those with special needs. I do believe that that is the gift that comes from having suffered or struggled yourself. You appreciate every day and you open your heart to others in need because you recognize their pain. Andréa had a irrepressible love of life….because she knew deep inside how precious hers was.
When she was only 8 years old, the two of us began volunteering to help a family whose small child had experienced brain damage. The child had lost their coordination due to a high fever and needed round the clock “patterning” techniques to help regain some of what was lost. This was a way for Andréa (who already had a deep love for young children) to see exactly how far she herself had come. It was a concrete way for me to show her what a miracle she was. She knew she wanted to be a Special Education teacher from a relatively early age….and w hen older, she found that dance therapy was a profession that she would like to pursue as well as a way of sharing the impact that dance had on her life with the lives of others.
While in college, she requested all of her records from Memorial Sloan-Kettering and included research on neuroblastoma as well as her own journaling and poetry to do a multi-genre project on childhood cancer. She even “dragged me” back to Sloan-Kettering so that she could see the room she was in and re-visit the playroom. We both just stood there and sobbed.
Can you tell me what Andréa herself was like as a child? Did you see anything of yourself in her? What did she enjoy doing the most?
Andréa was a very loving and affectionate child….and remained that way. She loved to dance from a very young age and I can still see her in her pink leotard and tights, blonde curls bobbing as she danced at 3 years old in her first creative movement class. There was a one way wind ow for parents to peer through and it was so amazing to see her coordination come back as she skipped and spun to the music. Dance and music were her lifelong loves. She once said, “I live to dance.” I know it got her through the challenges one faces during the teenage years.
I danced as a young girl as well and had hoped to major in dance in college. A bad knee kept me from that but it was always a part of me…and then a part of her. I certainly understood her passion for dance and encouraged and supported it in anyway that I could. And of course, we went to see the Nutcracker together every year from the time she was small until her last Christmas when we went to Lincoln Center.
Can you share one special experience or moment you had with Andréa you will never forget? What was your relationship like?
Truly, we were so close that there are too many special moments to pick just one. Due to all she had been through medically, Andréa had to overcome learning disabilities. Being a teacher myself, we worked together every night of her school years so that she could achieve whatever she wanted to. She graduated college with 3 teaching certifications: Elementary Education, Early Childhood Education and Special Education. I guess I will always remember the day that she asked me to go along for the ride as she was being interviewed by the Superintendent of Schools for her first teaching position. It was a rainy day and I sat in the car finishing up a photo quilt that was a gift for her college graduation. When I looked up and saw her running toward the car through the raindrops and puddles with the hugest smile….arms and hands waving, full of papers…I knew she had gotten the job. We both cried as she had worked so long and hard to achieve her life’s goal…and it had come to be. Every minute and hour that we had spent “over the books” during her school career was all worth it in that one moment.
How did dance become so important to her? What do you think it was about dancing that so appealed to her? Did she have a mentor or someone in particular she admired in that field?
Because school was a struggle and dance came naturally, I think it just made her feel good about herself. Her dance teachers were also an inspiration and role models for her. They had the biggest impact in boosting her self confidence…which made her a better dancer and spurred her on for more.
As a teen, was Andréa involved in any dance therapy groups or with organizations involving children with cancer?
Andréa worked in an Easter Seals camp for disabled children for many summers. She also worked for Special Olympics before and during college.
There was never an opportunity to have any hands on experience with dance therapy or children with cancer. She would have liked that.
Most mothers would be so overwhelmed with grief at the loss of their only child they would be unable to think of helping anyone else. What helped you through that pain and how did the idea for the Andréa Rizzo Foundation come about? Was it a difficult process to find support?
Rabbi Kushner wrote “When Bad Things Happen to Good People. ” In it he says that “people are God’s language.” I do believe that is true. It has been the love and caring of Andréa’s friends, my friends and family that has gotten me through. It was one of Andréa’s colleagues who suggested starting the Foundation. This got me out of bed and I have not stopped since. I would not have been so presumptuous to have thought of doing this on my own and would not have known where to begin. But surrounded by Andréa’s close college friends, her colleagues, my friends and family…I found the strength to keep moving toward that goal. I should say I was driven. When someone says “let’s do this for your daughter”…..you don’t pull the covers over your head and say “I can’t.” The support has not wavered since the day we wrote our mission statement, two months after Andréa’s death.The love that pours forth is astounding. Whenever I have needed someone to lean on ….. they are there. To this day, almost seven years after her death, I still receive cards at my doorstep from friends who want me to know that they will never forget.
I believe that when you are doing something from your heart and soul, the energy that is created draws people to you and together you can make dreams come true. On Mother’s Day each year, Andréa’s college roommates send me a big bouquet of sunflowers (Andréa’s favorite) with a note that says…”Love, from all your girls.” I have been blessed.
Have you been surprised by how much the organization has grown since its inception? AMAZED!!!!
Do you find at first parents are skeptical of the idea that ‘dance’ therapy can help theirchild who is most likely in constant pain?
I think that the parents are open to anything that will distract their child from the daily monotony of the hospital routine. They are also happy to have new ways of interacting with their child while many times the entire family participates in the session. They are pleasantly surprised by the impact that dance therapy has when it comes to calming their child through painful procedures…requiring less pain medication