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Hope, humor, and honesty: The one-woman Pink Hulk tackles cancer at the Seattle Public Theater

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Photo by Lauren Adler
Photo by Lauren Adler

On Monday, October 16, a new one-woman show premiered in Seattle. The Pink Hulk: One Woman's Journey to Find the Superhero Within was written by, produced by, and stars Valerie David, a three-time cancer survivor. Full of hope, humor, and honesty, it's about more than just her battle with breast cancer, however.

"It's not a 'why me' — it's an uplifting show, it's a funny show," David said. "It's my pursuit to find guys and love. That's a universal message. We're all finding love in our lives. We all have struggles in our life. This... is to help people with those struggles."

The play explores aspects of cancer often overlooked by the general public. It opens up an honest conversation about patient advocacy, medications and side effects, and the mental and physical effects of cancer.

"There's a stigma with cancer — with having any kind of chronic illness — that this person isn't going to be well enough," David said. "I always want people to see that this is what stage four looks like. If you could see me, you would not know this. It was very difficult, but I felt it needed to be said."

Cancer has been a part of David's life for over a quarter of a century. Since her first diagnosis 25 years ago, she has battled breast cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She wrote the show after her first two diagnoses; her third came later.

"The day I was opening ... in Portland, Oregon, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer," she revealed. "But I'd like to reiterate that I have no evidence of disease, which is just a miracle. So, I'm very grateful."

"I wrote this story because I want people to know that cancer doesn't have to be a death sentence," David added.

From page to stage
The story of The Pink Hulk came to David in a flash of energy. "It went from page to stage in less than six months. I've never done that before. I started it on Thanksgiving of 2015, and it was a whole production by June of 2016. It just had to come out," she said.

While the rest of her family celebrated the Thanksgiving weekend watching football, David sat alone writing. The process was cathartic for her. "It was like a volcano erupting, and I couldn't stop," she added.

When the show hit the New York circuit, David said, "It was exciting for me to get this out. It was a passion. I needed this for myself, because I had just finished treatment in February of that year ... after I had eight months of treatment, I started this. Maybe it was a little too soon, because it was still so fresh, but that was probably the best time to do it — while it was still going on, getting checkups, wondering if it would come back, having my hair grow back. I felt I needed it for me and others."

Her dedication paid off, and The Pink Hulk became an instant hit. It was nominated for Best Overall Production of a Solo Show and Best Solo Performance at the Planet Connections Festivity Theatre Festival in Manhattan; it won for Best Director of a Solo Show. "That was a big encouragement for me to keep going," David said.

The play has evolved along with David. "Over the last seven years, it's changed a lot, because I've changed a lot," she said. "I've still tweaked it, even for this show. I took out a scene, and I'm still working on it. It's always a work in progress. As time goes on, as I've changed, the story has changed as well."

Photo by Emily Hewitt  

Inspired by the Hulk
The title of the play comes from the emotions David felt throughout her second diagnosis. "It is a perfect title for this show," she said. "I was angry that I had cancer the second time. I was super angry, and I felt like the Hulk, [who] became the Hulk because of the gamma rays.

"[So] when I was in the radiation room getting radiation for breast cancer, there were lime-green beams criss-crossing all over the room. I felt so similar to Bruce Banner and the Hulk character, because of how it changed him and how this cancer changed me. His anger is what he uses to help people. I got angry and wanted to use [it] to help others. I felt that my own radiation beams made me who I am."

After finding an emotional connection to the Avengers character, David made another discovery. "I didn't know [the lymphoma] ribbon is lime green, like the Hulk," she said with a smile.

Not only does David use The Pink Hulk to spread awareness and start conversations about cancer, but it also raises money for cancer organizations. "This time, The Pink Hulk performances are raising money for Cancer Pathways Seattle. For me, it's not just about the show; it's about creating awareness for the services Seattle has to help people with cancer," she said.

Each performance also features an open discussion afterward. "We came up with things we want to talk about, like coping mechanisms and tips for when you go to your doctor," she said. "I want people to laugh when they come to the show. I want cancer to be not as scary as it is and to give people hope ... I'm in my 25th year as a cancer survivor, and I always joke that a New York bus will hit me before cancer takes me down."

The post-performance conversations have become one of David's favorite parts. "There was someone who saw the show in Pittsburgh who had testicular cancer, and he said, 'Even though Valerie and I had different cancers, I felt that I understood everything she said, and it really helped me and inspired me and made me feel not alone as well.'"

For survivors and caregivers, the conversation The Pink Hulk starts can be healing and enlightening, and it reminds them that they're not alone in their struggles.

While cancer has certainly changed her life, David has embraced the new version of herself, learned to love life, and inspired thousands along the way.