All the world’s a stage

A Wicked good time for a family who loves the arts
May 30th, 2019
This is a photo of Todd Danielson, daughters Harper and Finely, and the actress who played Elphaba in the production of Wicked.
Todd Danielson and daughters Harper (L) and Finley (R) chat with Sarah Ann Fernandez who played Elphaba Understudy in Wicked national tour. Photo courtesy of John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

There’s a saying in show business – the show must go on.

Regardless of what happens, be it technical difficulties, wardrobe malfunctions or the creator/writer/producer/actor of the show is diagnosed with brain cancer, the show continues as planned.

“It was surreal,” Danielson said. “Here we are in rehearsals for the show, then five or six days after the show, I’m having brain surgery to remove a tumor.”

Talk about a plot twist.

At home on the stage

Danielson, 46, found his place in community theater in Steamboat Springs, Colo., almost 15 years ago. He and his wife, Jennifer Hussey, had just had their first daughter, Harper.

“I got involved with Pirate Theatre,” said Danielson. “It was funny, silly stuff that we wrote ourselves that poked fun at people in town, where we live, the ski culture, current issues. It was less serious and a lot of fun.”

He ended up writing for Pirate Theatre for 10 years, producing nine full-length plays and packing a local ballroom for each performance. Because of the amount of intense work it took for each show – each with a new script and musical score, Danielson and a friend tossed around the idea of a sketch comedy show in hopes of being able to pull together something more regularly.

Thus, the Super Fun Steamboat Show was born, a mix of Saturday Night Live and vaudeville that features sketch comedy, improv skits and charades as well as musical and dancing performances.

During preparations for the February 2017 show, which happened to feature a sketch to the Gloria Gaynor song, “I Will Survive,” Danielson’s life abruptly had its script rewritten.

The plot thickens

Danielson had parked his car and was walking through the alley behind the Chief Theater to watch a series of one-act plays some friends were performing in.

“Colors got really crisp for a minute, and the next thing I knew, someone was waking me up in an ambulance,” he recalled.

A friend came upon an unconscious Danielson and thinking he’d slipped and fallen on the ice, called 911.

“I was out with girlfriends when I got the call saying Todd was being taken to the emergency room,” said Hussey. “I actually beat the ambulance there. Todd was trying to shake it off, but thank God the paramedics were insistent on getting him to the ER to be checked out.”

This is an image of the CT scan showing Todd Danielson's brain tumor.
A CT scan revealed a 60.5mm tumor on the right frontal lobe of Danielson’s brain. Image courtesy UCHealth.

Hussey said that Danielson didn’t have any bruises or scratches, or a bump on his head from falling.

“It never once entered our mind that it could have been something other than a fall, let alone a seizure,” she said.

Dr. Laila Powers, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, evaluated Danielson and ordered a CT.

“Dr. Powers came in, turned the monitor around and nothing needed to be said,” said Hussey. “There was a large mass in the right frontal lobe of his brain.”

“Everything was quiet for a little bit,” said Danielson. “First it was denial – ‘this has to be wrong.’ Then it was frightening as the uncertainty and reality of the situation set in.”

Danielson was admitted overnight and the next day, Dr. Brian Harrington, a family medicine physician in Steamboat Springs who was providing hospitalist coverage over the weekend, had the “what to expect” chat with Danielson, Hussey and their two girls, Harper and Finley.

“We had told the girls that Dad fell and had to stay overnight to make sure he was ok,” said Hussey. “Dr. Harrington recommended being honest with our daughters. But in our conversations, when the words ‘brain cancer’ and ‘brain tumor’ were said, Harper turned her back to all of us and started crying, and Finley repeated several times that she didn’t understand what all this meant.”

“I said, ‘Ok, this is what we have to do. What’s the next step?’” Danielson recalled. “There was nothing I could do about it. It was going to be what it was going to be. Whatever they say I need to do, I’ll do. I knew it was important for me to keep my same positive outlook regardless of what I was facing.”

Supporting cast

Danielson was admitted to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus the next day for testing and was ultimately diagnosed with Grade II Oligodendroglioma, commonly referred to as brain cancer.

This is a photo of Todd Danielson following brain surgery at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
Danielson had brain surgery at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Hussey.

“I went into research mode and put out feelers to anyone who had ties to the medical field,” said Hussey. “With it being an academic hospital, I felt confident that they were up on the latest technology and studies. That made me extremely comfortable with Todd being at UCHealth and with their neurology department.”

Neurosurgeon Dr. Aviva Abosch performed surgery to remove the majority of the tumor.

“She did a phenomenal job,” said Hussey. “It was a very successful resection.”

Following surgery, Dr. Denise Damek, a neuro-oncologist, and Dr. Chad Rusthoven, a radiation oncologist, used a tag-team approach as Danielson went through seven weeks of daily chemotherapy and radiation. For the next year after that, it was five days of chemo followed by a 23-day break.

“We chose to stay with UCHealth and keep his team together,” said Hussey. “We were so pleased with everyone and didn’t want to shake things up. We were willing to continue making the drive and manage the logistics of us being in Denver and our kids being in Steamboat with family and friends.”

“I knew as long as I survived brain surgery, I could manage the radiation and chemo,” said Danielson. “It became a thing I did every day for a while. It wore me down pretty good. I lost my hair, but it came back and it wasn’t gray any more. But I don’t pass that around – I don’t recommend this as a treatment plan for gray hair.”

Tight-knit community

Danielson said each month of his 17-month treatment got a little easier instead of worse. It was during that time that he realized something.

This is an ad for the February 2017 Super Fun Steamboat Show that benefited Danielson.
Cast members decided donations from the February 2017 Super Fun Steamboat Show would benefit Danielson. Image courtesy Super Fun Steamboat Show Facebook page.

“You think people care, and then you go through something like this and you really see and feel how much they care,” he said.

Take that February 2017 Super Fun Steamboat Show. The cast and crew decided to make it an “STD” fundraiser to “Save Todd Danielson,” with all donations benefiting Danielson and the journey on which he was embarking.

“We approached that show as, ‘Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.

’ We were committed to doing the best show we could and if that was my last one, we would know we gave it our best shot,” said Danielson. “I was blown away by the support. Every Super Fun Steamboat Show since then has been free, with donations benefiting a local cause.”

“It’s funny, when we were in appointments before the surgery, Todd’s only question was, ‘Will I lose any creativity?’” said Hussey. “It’s who he is. I love his sense of humor. He’s always been our rock. He never wavered during any of this, never felt sorry for himself. He never once asked about a prognosis because regardless of what was said, it wasn’t going to impact how he lives his life.”

Sharing the stage

Photo 1 – Danielson played The Wiz in a local production of The Wiz. Photo 2 – Danielson with daughter Finley following The Wiz. Photo 3 – Danielson as Mother Ginger in The Nutcracker. Photos courtesy Jennifer Hussey.

 

Danielson is excited his daughters have found enjoyment in the arts as well. Harper, 14, performs with a local dance studio, and Finley, 11, has danced and recently gave acting a try in a community production.

“When the dance studio did The Wiz, the girls and I performed together. That was really cool because it was kids and friends and the arts community all coming together,” said Danielson. “Harper, Finley and I have all been in The Nutcracker, too.”

“The kids know they can’t contain Todd and his excitement and creativity,” said Hussey. “Watching them all perform together is so special.”

As part of a UCHealth Moments to Shine experience with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the stage recently became larger than life for the Danielson/Hussey family as they experienced Wicked.

“It’s a big production in every way. I really loved the writing and the story, how it all fit with The Wizard of Oz but came from a different and intelligent angle,” said Danielson. “You can see how much bigger in scale it is compared to the small-town performances I’m used to. It really is ‘Broadway on the road.’”

“It was so cool to have the opportunity to see part of the backstage process of getting ready for a big production like Wicked and to hear Sarah (cast member) speak about her passion for performing,” said Harper.

“The show was amazing,” said Finley.

“We absolutely loved it,” said Hussey. “The talented cast, costumes, set design, music. All of it was incredible with a meaningful theme and message. It was such a fun night for our family.”

Seize the day

This is a photo of the Danielson/Hussey family in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah.
Family vacation to Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Hussey.

Danielson’s brain cancer is in remission.  He continues to take anti-seizure medication and will have MRIs and check-ins with his neuro-oncologist for the rest of his life. He’s still spearheading the Super Fun Steamboat Show, and he’s never abandoned his positive outlook on life.

“Brain cancer is something crazy that happened – past tense, with an ‘-ed’ on the end,” said Danielson. “It’s always going to be part of my story, but it seems more in the past now because I’m continuing to live and do the things I love. I was lucky to be surrounded by good doctors, and I continue to do what they tell me to do.”

“Gratitude is what kept us whole and on track,” said Hussey. “We are grateful for everything we have in spite of this hiccup, if you can call brain cancer a hiccup. We leaned on family and friends and asked for support when we needed it, and we were embraced with so much.”

“Life throws you curveballs ever once in a while,” said Danielson. “I caught a few lucky breaks and am still here with my family, doing the things I love.”

About the author

Lindsey Reznicek is a communications specialist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She has spent the last eight years working in marketing and communications in health care, an industry she never considered but one to which she's contributed through her work in media relations, executive messaging and internal communications. She considers it an honor to interact with patients and write about their experiences; it’s what keeps her coming back to work each day.

A native of Nebraska, Lindsey received a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism, with a focus on public relations, from the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University – she bleeds purple.

She could see a Broadway musical every week, is a huge animal lover, enjoys a good shopping trip, and likes spending time in the kitchen. Lindsey and her husband have two daughters and enjoy hiking in the summer and skiing all winter long.