Cancer Saved My Life – A Ballroom Dance Story by Emilee Garfield

In our world of dancesport, we sometimes can get really caught up in our work and forget about how inspiring real-life stories are. In this article, I am sharing the story of Emilee Garfield, a cancer thriver, who discovered a real passion and love for ballroom dancing.

About Emilee Garfield

Emilee has recovered from cancer twice and it is her mission to help other cancer survivors live with hope and joy.

She was first diagnosed at age 4 with a rare cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma. After two years of grueling radiation and chemotherapy, she survived.

In 2015, she was diagnosed with stage 3c ovarian cancer.

Recovering and exercising

At the time of her recovery from ovarian cancer, Emilee was a single mom with three children. She had no choice but to return to work as a Yoga/Pilates instructor as soon as possible, with her ileostomy. There were no exercise resources available to help her safely rebuild her core muscles, but she knew movement was medicine and that she would heal faster by gently moving her body.

Creating resources

While recovering, Emilee wrote her book Reclaim Your Strength and Hope: Exercises for Cancer Core Recovery. She researched and taught herself how to rebuild her strength and flexibility. Emilee created a volume of over 200 gentle movement exercises and stretches to help cancer survivors feel better in their bodies during a time when everything seems like it’s falling apart.

In 2016, Emilee founded The Cancer Core Recovery® Project, a non-profit foundation that provides educational exercise programs, workout videos, and instructional training manuals to help survivors of ovarian cancer enjoy a better quality of life.

Emilee has been teaching Yoga and Pilates for the past 18 years at her studio, The Loft, in Santa Barbara, California. She is a certified New Life Story® coach and her passion is teaching people of all shapes and sizes how to love and honor their bodies, no matter what.

Let’s discover more about how ballroom dancing helped Emilee Garfield recover from ovarian cancer.

Cancer Saved My Life - A Ballroom Dance Story by Emilee Garfield

Bianca: When did you start dancing and why? What do you love most about ballroom dancing?

Emilee Garfield: One day I walked by a new dance studio in my town and it was a ballroom studio. I had never danced ballroom before and I had always wanted to dance like those beautiful women on Dancing With The Stars. My body was weak and my hair was just growing back in. I was only four months post-chemotherapy. I told my daughter that I am going to start dance lessons and one day maybe compete on the show, Dancing With The Stars. She told me I would embarrass myself and that I was too old. HA! I was forty years old. It became a dare and I wanted to show my kids that it doesn’t matter if you are a dancer or not, if you put your time and effort into anything, you will succeed. I was not a trained ballroom dancer. I had danced in high school and college, but I was just average. I was never the star of the show. I was very shy and insecure about my body. I was struggling with depression and memory loss from chemotherapy. And to be honest, I needed to feel ALIVE again.

Bianca: How did ballroom dancing help you in your recovery? What is the most valuable lesson that ballroom dancing has taught you?

Emilee Garfield: I was just beginning to rebuild my life. My motto became GO BIG or GO HOME! So, I started to train with a private instructor named Vasily Goslin. He was from Russia. The first lesson I learned was the cha-cha. It was so fun and I wanted more. I was addicted from the first class. My body had to be trained in this new style. My body was really stiff and I was recovering by having an Ileostomy, colon bag on my tummy. I had a lot of scar tissue in my core and if you do ballroom, you know it’s all about your core.

Before I knew it, I was training for my first ballroom competition at Emerald Ball. I couldn’t believe it. It was like everything I had been dreaming of was coming true. Karina Smirnoff was in my studio and I had a few private lessons with her. She taught me one thing that I took away from dance and it is what helped me win five 1st place prizes in my first competition! She told me to smile. Have fun. That is what people notice. Maybe I am not the best ballroom dancer, but I can guarantee you that when I am on the dance floor I am one of the happiest and most grateful people out there.

I remember my first time on the floor I was so nervous. I couldn’t afford a new fancy dress or wear high heels. I was in a friend’s used orange dress with my flat beginner shoes on. It didn’t matter. I danced my heart out.

It wasn’t about ever winning for me, it was challenging myself that I can do anything I put my mind too. I put myself in the most uncomfortable situation, learning how to dance with a partner. What it taught me was trust. I created a life-long friendship with my teacher. He helped me through a very difficult time in my life, cancer and a divorce. He gave me back the confidence I had been lacking. Danced helped me believe in myself again. It was my medicine. I never took any drugs for my depression. I just danced.

Learning to dance ballroom was and still is a challenge and that is why I love it. It pushes me out of my comfort zone. It teaches me how to overcome obstacles. Some days I get mad at my teacher and frustrated because I want it to be perfect. What I’ve learned is that life is not perfect and that is ok. Make the best of your life every day! Dancing helps me remember this.

The most valuable lesson that dance has taught me is that you can achieve anything you put your mind to. It just takes determination and literally taking that first step. It has taught me to not let fear hold me back. You will never know what you are capable of unless you just go for it. And I did.

Bianca: How did you move pass difficult moments as a dancer?

Emilee Garfield: There were many times when I would get frustrated and want to give up. I would tell myself, “I suck,” and tell my teacher that I can’t do this. My teacher always told me that I could do it because he truly believed in me. He told me that I had a natural talent, and the gift of dance, and to please not give up. I owe it to my teacher.

On the days when I would cry and feel bad that I couldn’t get a dance step, I would have to take a little break, talk to myself and use mantras like, “You can do this”, “Get back up”. I looked back at my life and reminded myself of the huge obstacles that I just overcame: battling cancer and recovering from major surgery. I knew if I could survive cancer and fight back, that I could learn the cha-cha. I would train my brain to tell myself that I was unstoppable and that I would go the distance and do what it took to make it to my first ballroom competition. Basically, it was all a mindset for me.

Bianca: What advice would you give to dancers in terms of body positivity?

Emilee Garfield: This is so important. I have had body shame all of my life. I have scars all over my body that nobody can see. I have been the worst critic of my own life and body. What I have learned from almost dying of cancer is that we are all beautiful in our own way. We are not supposed to be like others because God made us different. We all have scars. Maybe they are not physical, but we all have something inside of us that tells us that we are not good enough.

I am working on this myself and would love to see all women embrace their bodies with respect. It doesn’t matter what color we are, what shape we are, we are all beautiful. Learning to let go of my own body shame has opened me up to so much more happiness. When I catch myself, that inner negative voice, telling me, “You are not pretty,” or “You are not good enough,” I have to remind myself that these are just lies. We all do it, so let’s begin to change the story of body positivity. You are what you think. Think positively about yourself!

Cancer Saved My Life - A Ballroom Dance Story by Emilee Garfield

Bianca: What is the most important thing you learned by fighting cancer?

Emilee Garfield: The most important thing that I learned fighting cancer is that life is short. DO NOT waste your time on negativity. That means negative people too. Find people that lift you up and stick close to them. Chase your dreams and never give up because anything is possible. Trust me, if I did it so can anybody else. Create a plan and take action steps to get to where you want to go. That is my advice. Life is what you make of it, so make it a good one. That is a choice only you can make.

You can learn more about how to work with Emilee on her website: http://emileegarfield.com/.

To donate to her foundation or to learn more about her mission to help cancer survivors in recovery, visit: http://donate.cancercorerecovery.org/

Connect with Emilee on Facebook and Instagram.


I've started dancing when I was 9 years old and it has been a part of me ever since. I love to surround myself with everything dancesport related. Now I get to experience the world of dancing through a writer's lens.


Tags: ballroom dancing benefits cancer survivor

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