Elise Gaudino lost her father to brain cancer when she was only 13 years old. Diving deeply into her passion – dance – back then got her through it.
Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that dance has also kept her going after her own glioblastoma diagnosis decades later, at age 39.
“Dance is what prepared me. Being a dancer, it trains you for incredible situations,” she says. “You just don't quit. You don't quit.”
After high school, Elise’s guidance counselor tried to steer her toward math or science, but she needed to dance. She performed at Walt Disney World for a year and then traveled around the country. She also worked with a local dance company in New York City at Merce Cunningham Theater, teaching classes all the while. At one point, she tried going for a master’s degree in school psychology but once she started, it didn’t feel right. She’s glad she did it, though, because it provided important knowledge she’d need for the next step in her life.
She quit the master’s program and a week later, a friend called. She was selling her dance studio and wanted Elise to buy it. Of course, Elise leapt at the opportunity. That was in 1998 and she’s been the owner of Visions Dance Studio in Henrietta ever since.
“It's what I do,” Elise says about dancing. “I can't imagine doing anything else at this point.”
Even after being diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2010, Elise continued working, teaching classes there and around the community.
Luckily, the tumor was located in a spot that wouldn’t impact functions like speech and coordination – vital for a dancer. She had surgery with Kevin Walter, M.D., and within a week, was back teaching dance. She had chemo and radiation afterward for six weeks and then 12 months more of chemotherapy. The chemo did not make Elise feel well, but she missed as little work as possible.
In fact, she credits her active lifestyle as a major factor in getting through treatment side effects.
“I made sure I was here at the studio because when you’re on chemo, it makes you feel so sick, but you can’t just lay on the couch all day. You have to move and I was working out, doing yoga, going to the gym, teaching dance classes every day,” she says.
After that year of treatment, life carried on as normal for a while. Then in 2016, she had a recurrence and needed a second surgery, which she postponed so she could get through the dance studio’s holiday showcase first. After surgery, her oncology team, led by Nimish Mohile, M.D., and Jennifer Serventi, PA-CMS, asked if she would be interested in a clinical trial.
At first, she felt unsure, but when she learned participating in the clinical trial meant the cost of the drug itself as well as blood work and MRIs would be covered by the company sponsoring the trial, she decided to do it. Elise has insurance, but being self-employed meant certain services could be expensive.
Her motivations are more than financial, though. She’s glad she volunteered to help advance treatment for glioblastoma.
“You could be a part of something incredible that works,” she says about her clinical trial experience.
Elise ended up being randomized to the standard-of-care arm of the trial. Some patients got a new treatment that essentially uses a virus to attack the tumor and build up the immune system. However, on the control arm of the study, Elise received another six months of the same chemotherapy she’d gotten after her first tumor was diagnosed. Thankfully, this option worked well for her.
In summer 2019, her team noticed a spot in the location where her tumor had been. Looking at scans over the course of a year, her team noticed the spot had been changing, even if very slowly, so to be safe, they had her undergo five days of a radiation treatment. She hasn’t had any side effects from that and at age 48 – nearly nine years after her first diagnosis – she continues to feel well.
Most importantly, she continues to teach dance, the discipline that has brought her so much joy through good times and bad alike.
“Every day I wake up, I say, ‘OK, God, point me in the right direction. What do you need me to do?’ Because I'm here for some reason,” she says. “I can't just believe that this is a coincidence that I'm here nine years later.”