The 25-year-old actor from Tarpon Springs was diagnosed with cancer last year. Her passion for theater was one thing that kept her going through some dark days, and it’s the one thing that’s helped her regain her strength.
“I’ve been acting my whole life, since I was three years old,” said Joanna, who grew up in Ft. Lauderdale and moved with her family to Tarpon Springs in 2009.
In high school, she focused on Shakespeare and set her sights on Julliard, but persistent stomach problems kept her ill much of the time.
“Since I was 14, my stomach was messed up, I felt run down and tired all the time,” she said.
She couldn’t eat, and she began losing weight. Consistently nauseous and having pain that radiated to her rib cage, she went to several doctors, who thought she had some type of gastric disorder.
After high school, her health forced her to put off college. At age 20, she built up enough strength and courage to audition for Julliard.
Auditions were in Atlanta, and she had set up the appointment, prepared her monologues and planned the trip.
But when the day came, she got sick again and ended up in the hospital for endoscopic surgery in search of an answer to her stomach problems, but to no avail.
At 24, she found lumps in her neck that seemed to appear overnight.
“I was finally diagnosed at 24 with Hodgkins lymphoma,” said Joanna. “It turns out that I had cancer since I was 14.”
The stress of the cancer had triggered her stomach disorder. By the time she was diagnosed, cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
She underwent four months of chemotherapy, which left her even weaker and caused other health complications.
“The night I lost my hair, I slipped into a coma. I almost died,” she said. “I had all kinds of crazy dreams. At one point, my uncle who passed away came to me in my dream. He said, ‘You have to get back on that stage. That’s where you belong.’”
That was a turning point for Joanna. When she regained consciousness, she thought, I’m probably going to die, but I’m going to go down fighting.
She says that without her family and the desire to act again, she couldn’t have made it. “Those are the two things that made me fight, otherwise, I would have given up.”
Joanna finished chemotherapy a year ago in December, and finished radiation treatments in March. She is now in remission.
This past summer, she was looking at the Straz Center website to see what Broadway shows were coming to Tampa, and she discovered the theater classes at the Patel Conservatory.
When she joined the musical theater class, it was like coming home.
“The teachers are all so fantastic. They make you feel like you’re supposed to be there. In class, it’s a real warm, inviting atmosphere,” she said.
“It feels like I’m alive again. I haven’t been alive for the past five years. I’m finally able to do what I’ve always done, act and sing and perform.”