Kat Cressida is using her voice to help others half a decade after she nearly lost her own to a rare form of cancer.
The noted voice actor has brought life to beloved characters like Toy Story's Jessie on various projects, and Dee Dee from Dexter’s Laboratory, as well as matching the voices of actors such as Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, and many other A-Listers when they’re not available.
But about seven years ago, the Disney darling had to fight for her life and her livelihood after what she first experienced as a catch on the left side of her jaw, and what was subsequently misdiagnosed as everything from a cyst to a impacted tooth, turned out to be a rare form of cancer, dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans, manifested in an even rarer part of her body, she told PopCulture.com. The utter oddity of her cancer diagnosis made finding an answer to what was going on a battle in and of itself, let alone finding a surgeon who was willing to take on the risky, unprecedented cancer and reconstruction surgery, as the tumor was in such a perilous portion of her face it was certain to paralyze her, leaving her disfigured and without a voice altogether.
Surgery, however, presented its own risks of disfigurement and paralyzation, as well as possible coma and death.
Finally finding a surgeon at Cedars Sinai, Dr. David M. Alessi, willing to take on the incredibly risky procedure, Cressida was left post-surgery with eight weeks of daily radiation to undergo, all after fighting through painful complications that required her to be periodically quarantined, live with a face brace on to hold her grafted skin in place and minor surgeries.
Cressida was left devastating pain and the emotionally crushing disfigurement that swelled the left side of her head to the point she was advised not to look in mirrors by her caretakers. In addition, she was forced to undergo several follow-up surgeries on subsequent Christmas holidays, leaving her feeling isolated during the generally cheerful time.
That period of her life, Cressida recalls, was "just pure survival," as she struggled with pain, panic attacks, the "darkness" of wondering if she would ever be able to rejoin what was once her life, and if it was worth suffering through all of it at all.
"At those moments, I definitely [tried to have] the general mantra, 'Well, I didn't get this far to just get this far," she explains. "So there’s really no option but to keep taking baby steps forward. And baby steps became the comforting part of it. ...You just have to get through this particular moment and breathing, taking big bites of oxygen is how I remember thinking of it.”
In the midst of her recovery, Cressida also had to fight with the health care system, which didn't recognize her facial reconstruction surgery as a medical necessity, landing her with hundreds of thousands of medical bills during her darkest time. It took everything she had, and some help from the "general good essence" of people willing to step in and advocate on her behalf to make it through that obstacle as well.
"It doesn't feel like [the movies] in real life," she describes her triumph over the insurance coding. "There was no moment of beautiful lighting and a beautiful soundtrack. You feel very alone in it."
Keeping her suffering largely to herself certainly added to the isolation.
"I never wanted to play the, 'I'm sick!' card, because that's not how I [wanted to see] myself," Cressida confesses. "It was a lonely isolated journey for so long, and one I wanted to keep secret for fear of [losing] everything. ... Talking about it was impossible just a few years ago."
Taking a big step out from the shadows at TEDxUCLA this May, Cressida was shocked to see how much an impact her story had on the audience, saying, "I was genuinely stunned and not expecting that."
“I'm sure at the very least it feels good to be doing something with all that mess other than it being an anecdote," she adds of her subsequent speaking engagements and going public with her story. "Like it's actually going to turn into something of value to people who are going through whatever scariness or pain or grief or loss … it’s a good feeling to know that maybe it will."
And while Cressida would love her recovery story to wrap up with a tidy little bow just like the Disney movies she loves so much, it's certainly not over.0comments
“It’s like any recovery from grief of loss or deep trauma," she notes. "Some days it's like, 'Wow, I'm me again,' and it’s almost like it never happened. And there are some days where you're back in the middle of it. And it’s cyclical.”
For more on Cressida's health journey and her voice acting work, follow her on Twitter and Instagram @KatCressida or on Facebook here. For more on her keynote speaking, follow her on Twitter at @KCkeynote or visit her webpage at katcressidaspeaks.com.