Oct. 16—HIGH POINT — It was Sept. 30, opening night of the annual Fall Dance Concert at High Point University, and the butterflies in Lindsey Howie's stomach were doing pirouettes.
For a dancer, and even for a dance instructor, the road to opening night is never an easy one. But for Howie, the head of HPU's dance program, the road to this opening night had been particularly cluttered with potholes and roadblocks.
This had been the most difficult semester of the 39-year-old instructor's teaching career, for reasons that had nothing to do with her students, the curriculum or the performance she was about to see. For the past 12 weeks, Howie had been dancing with an unwanted partner — breast cancer — that had kept her from being with her students as they prepared for that night's performance.
A wife and mother of three children, ages 10, 8 and 5, Howie had been juggling family life — such as it was, under adverse circumstances — with a frightening cancer diagnosis, a battery of scans and biopsies and medical consultations, a double mastectomy, and the rigors of postsurgical recovery.
Now, she was finally back on campus and seeing her students for the first time since the first week of the semester, when she had told them she'd be taking an extended leave of absence.
Arriving well before showtime, Howie walked into Pauline Theatre in the Hayworth Fine Arts Center and was taken aback. The dancers were on stage warming up, and they were all wearing pink — the universal color for breast cancer awareness — in her honor.
"I completely fell apart," Howie recalls. "My 5-year-old daughter, Lydian, was with me, and she held my hand and kissed me on the cheek when she saw the tears in my eyes. I felt very vulnerable, but I knew the love and support from everyone was holding my soul up."
They've been holding her soul up — or at least helping to hold it up, along with friends and family — ever since Howie, an assistant professor of dance at HPU, discovered a mass on her left breast over the summer. Breast cancer is unusual at Howie's age — she hasn't even reached 40 yet, the recommended age to begin getting annual mammograms — but a biopsy confirmed the cancer on July 9. The cancer was in three lymph nodes, as well.
On Aug. 31, she underwent a double mastectomy — genetic testing indicated she had a high risk of recurrence, so she opted to have both breasts removed instead of just the one — and the surgeon removed eight suspicious-looking lymph nodes. She had her first round of chemotherapy Thursday. A radiation regimen still awaits, followed by breast reconstruction surgery.
Howie's life has been a whirlwind, but the HPU dance community has been wind beneath her wings. Under faculty members' guidance, students raised money by selling rubber bracelets — pink for breast cancer awareness — that said "Lindsey Strong." They prepared meals for Howie's family. They made care packages with blankets and small gifts for Howie, alongside books, games and DVDs for her children.
"She really is like our mom away from home," explains Olivia Keider, a 20-year-old junior from Lewisville who's minoring in dance.
"When she told us (about the cancer), it was a pretty big shock for all of us, especially considering how young she is. But we knew right away, with how much she's done for us, that we had to do something to help her."
Christine Stevens, an adjunct professor of dance at HPU, says Howie's diagnosis hit close to home for the students.
"That's somebody they know personally and have a relationship with," she says. "It's more personal, and they wanted to feel like they were doing something that made a difference. They're very caring individuals anyway, but they were especially invested in this."
That's why the dancers all wore pink during their opening-night warmups. Audience members were encouraged to wear pink, too — pink shirts, pink ribbons — and even HPU President Nido Qubein showed up wearing a pink necktie.
Donations were collected that night for Cancer Services, a local organization that supports cancer patients in a variety of ways and was a godsend for Howie. The students raised nearly $2,000 through donations and through the sale of the "Lindsey Strong" bracelets.
The students' efforts culminated with their opening-night performance, which they dedicated to Howie, knowing she would be in the audience. Before the show, she went backstage and exchanged tearful hugs with her students, who were just as glad to see her as she was them. She also joined the dancers for their traditional pre-show "pep talk," in which they join hands in a circle and talk about doing their best.
In Howie's eyes, though, they had already done their best.
"I tried to tell them how amazing and generous they all are, and how they have made an incredible impact on the community," Howie says, "but I was quickly overcome by tears."
Olivia Keider remembers that moment well.
"Yeah, she had all of us in tears, too," she says.
This week marks another milestone for Howie. After missing much of the semester on disability, she will resume teaching Monday — not quite fully healed from her surgery, and possibly dealing with the side effects of chemo, but eager to reunite with her students and let them hold up her soul once more.
"I'm nervous," Howie says, "but I know that my family, friends, colleagues and students all have my back."
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