Aisha Spencer has been in six CCA stage productions. Yet her story isn’t about characters as much as character, as the inspiration and encouragement she’s given others has coincided with her own hidden life and death struggle.
By Lee Rasizer, CCA Public Relations Coordinator
The sound that unwittingly escapes when Aisha Spencer reaches hysterics doesn’t produce noise of the Old McDonald’s Farm, oink-oink-here, oink-oink-there variety. The rumbling of the bridge of her nose suggests more the slobbery satisfaction of hogs at feeding time.
Snort. Heh. Snort. It’s unfettered joy with an accompanying soundtrack.
Spencer actually created this personal Frankenstein of traits, setting it upon the world and now totally incapable of reigning in her creation. The laugh was part of the creative process in shaping the character The Red Queen in the play “Looking Glass Alice” shortly after arriving at Community College of Aurora in the fall of 2009. The invention since has become a part of her DNA.
It isn’t the only byproduct of the six theater productions in which Spencer’s been involved at what’s become her second, and in many ways her first, home at the Black Box Theatre in the Fine Arts Building on the CentreTech Campus.
She’ll randomly use sign language learned in “Romeo and Juliet.”
She’ll flash a geeky expression, courtesy of “25th Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
She learned some ‘sass’ from “Ragtime.”
She’ll playfully hit people within her reach because of “Anonymous.”
And, through it all, behind the scenes, she’s managed to embrace cheese, of all things, like mice at a Kraft factory. She doesn’t so much eat this dairy delight but devour it. Giant Costco-sized blocks. Individually wrapped slices stacked like playing cards. Enough cubes to puzzle-piece together into a giant square fortress. All have a short shelf life with Spencer around.
But what many people even closest to the student/actress still don’t know was that cheese wasn’t just a calcium-rich dietary choice; it was also part of her private means of survival.
Spencer for most of the past three-plus years has hidden away cancer that’s wracked her body. Cheese effectively fought the nausea she frequently endured once she finally chose immunotherapy treatments to combat the disease long after her initial diagnosis.
It’s often said the show must go on, and Spencer did everything to ensure she could be part of nearly every one, even if a Gouda wheel or two had to go. It helped ensure that her personal travails remained clutched tight to the vest, though, make no mistake, there was silent suffering.
The debilitating pain from scoliosis she’s suffered from an early age, has required multiple surgeries to correct and will now necessitate another complex procedure in February. Spencer somehow even managed to hide a bone marrow transplant from all but her closest confidantes, scheduling that procedure between CCA productions.
“There was never a moment where anybody who was a regular around her saw her for what she really was experiencing,” said Jess Hyer, a close friend of Spencer. “She wouldn’t let them.”
Pride, courage and revulsion to somehow being viewed differently all factored into that clandestine mindset. But it was an unbridled love of acting and the symbiotic relationships she felt with the casts that surrounded her that helped keep her going.
“One of the great things about acting is you forget everything that’s going on and become another person,” said Hyer, a veteran herself of several CCA productions and now a former student. “You can become someone who isn’t sick, who isn’t in pain. Even if you have the physical reminder, while you’re on stage, it melts away and it’s almost like it’s not real and you get to live a different life, even if it’s just for five minutes. I think that’s probably one thing that keeps bringing her back.”
The irony is, Spencer admitted that she probably never would have even tried out for a single play had she been perfectly healthy because she dreaded public speaking.
“One thing having an illness does is it tells you there’s no room for letting fear get in the way of doing things,” Spencer said, adding with a laugh, “So, in a way I should be grateful.”
At about nine years old Spencer saw “The Lion King” at the Temple Buell Theatre and was blown away by the effort and enthusiasm it took to create that show. She interpreted what she’d seen as magic. “I wished I had that much passion,” Spencer recalled. “I didn’t know it would turn into my passion in the end.”
Feeling that same magic as an actress at CCA now runs as deep in her veins as the impurities in her body; is as permanent as the metal fastening some of her bones. So this play-in-pain motif was going to be her life, allowing her to live her existence to its fullest before the clock expired on her terms.
“I don’t want people to see me as a cancer girl. That’s not who I am,” Spencer said emphatically. “I want people to see me as the crazy, weird girl who’s in theater and makes people laugh. I prefer that.”
Still, cancer is an inescapable companion. Doctors dating back to the spring of 2009 told Spencer that living two years was the likely scenario; five years a perfect storm.
The calendar since has been replaced on the wall four times since that diagnosis, and within that time she’s been able to experience what she wanted, as she wanted: without boundaries and devoid of complaint.
Even more remarkable, Spencer inspired merely by the way she carried herself and supported others unequivocally within the college’s Performing Arts department, even though for the longest time nearly everyone was kept in the dark about her back story.
“It was like she had finally found her place at CCA – a good solid nook that she could sit in and get her work done. Then, all of a sudden, life just opened up for her,” said Lana Chavez, another close friend. “All of a sudden she was able to climb out of that black hole of depression she had been in, take a look around and really say, ‘There’s hope. I can do this.’
“There’s something about CCA that enables that in a person,” Chavez continued. “I don’t know if it’s the environment. I don’t know if the energy is good and we’re in an Indian spiritual place here. But every single person who takes classes here, and really every person who’s part of the family in the theater building blooms.”
Spencer’s cancer battle didn’t go public until the most recent play this past fall, “Glimpses” and, again, at a faculty speech at last semester’s Student Success Awards, where Spencer was honored for academics. Both occasions featured mentions of her condition, including a searing monologue in the play that Spencer delivered.
Cast members had suspicions and were hearing rumors just prior to pre-show rehearsals for “Glimpses” that something more was happening to their friend and cast mate physically, but it took her courageously voicing her condition and stripping bare the connected emotions for people that had spent hours on end with her to finally get confirmation.
Spencer was that good at obfuscation.
“As much stress as a show brings her, she can’t survive without them,” said Crystal Bergeron, a former CCA student and Spencer’s best friend. “She’s been told she has to take it easy here or there and she won’t accept it. She has to give it her all or not at all. It’s her family and every time there’s a new show, she makes more family and grows her friendship base, hones her craft and becomes a mentor. How can you not want that? It’s where she feels beautiful, talented, wanted, and respected.”
Those qualities shine through the more Spencer allows you to see.
Many of her cast mates seek her company and advice metaphorically like moths to a flame, only the warmth that emanates is real. Should an actor or actress need a well-placed kick in the pants for motivation, Spencer isn’t afraid to dole that out, either, but she never comes off as nasty while doing so.
“She’s just been my right-hand girl,” said theatre director Stacey D’Angelo, who has guided Spencer during four plays and through the developmental stages of another before taking time off for maternity leave last year. “I honestly couldn’t have done what I’ve done here without her.”
Yet, true to Spencer’s personality, she chooses to deflect any credit regarding the impact she’s obviously had on fellow CCA actors and crew. She’ll tell you that she “isn’t doing anything” and “doesn’t deserve” any attention. At the same time, Spencer readily admitted that if she projects positivity on others that perhaps they won’t look so closely at her own situation.
“These people are so talented, so loving so gracious, that I think they deserve to make it in whatever they want to make it in,” Spencer said in a lengthy interview before the December break. “I try to encourage them about that, because they have brilliant lights in them. I just want people to see that light.”
So, what then, should people say about Spencer, who counts the time that passes by her plays and not days? “That I like cheese,” she responds without hesitation.
Uncontrollable snorting commences.
Spencer hasn’t always been so happy-go-lucky. She admits to darker moments and bouts with depression even now.
“I cower in a room and watch TV and eat ice cream sometimes,” she said.
It’s just that she’s done her level best to not reveal those underpinnings of emotion or made excuses when her health might have raised questions publicly.
“I’m human and obviously it’s a big deal,” Spencer said of her plight. “I can’t always keep a smile on my face. When you have something looming over you, you can’t help but dwell on it sometimes. I call this the ‘numb period’ and that’s why I’m a TV show addict. They kind of get me out of my head into thinking about anything else. I’ll stop talking to people for a couple days, which they try to prevent me from doing.”
Even so, the public front she’s concocted at CCA has been a masterful cover-up of her underlying condition.
Vomiting was given disguise by a flu bug that hit many of the cast. A substantial loss of weight – 15-20 pounds on an already slight frame -- was sold as not feeling well lately. Debilitating back pain was chalked up to her scoliosis. Spencer at one point hid under her clothes an electrical shock pack that helped regulate overwhelming discomfort from walking or sitting for long periods.
She already was notorious for her asthma and bad allergies, so those were built-in excuses, as well. A device gave her concentrated amounts of medication and regulated her breathing. She stayed away from places where dust and dander may be in substantial supply, sometimes skipping social occasions with the cast because of that risk.
But at least there were people like D’Angelo, Bergeron, Chavez and Hyer who, over time, were let in the know and could also help run interference, if needed. The play “Blackheart” was particularly excruciating for Spencer physically.
“The theater is so important to her that I think she’s willing to let all her medical stuff go on stage. It’s almost like a drug when she gets up there,” said Martell Harding, who has been in five productions with Spencer and didn’t have his own suspicions confirmed that his co-star suffered from a severe illness until last semester.
“She’s addicted to it, and she loves doing it so much, I think putting her on bed rest couldn’t stop her from wanting to be here. And for me to see that, it’s just incredible. I don’t know what I would do.”
A sense of helplessness actually first set Spencer on her current course from a teenager to the brave-faced 23-year-old she is today. Before the thrill of the theater consumed her, despair had its hold, preceding even her cancer diagnosis.
An Aurora native, she began doing “pioneer” work shortly after her high school graduation in preparation for a future missionary trip as a Jehovah’s Witness. She handed out literature 50 hours weekly door to door for several months, a path that reflected more the expectations of her religious father, with whom she lived growing up, than free will. But Spencer soon discovered it wasn’t the life she wanted and clashed with her own ideals about education.
“I just felt I wasn’t going anywhere,” she explained. “I felt stuck and didn’t know who I was.”
A suicide attempt followed. She was hospitalized three weeks, received professional psychological treatment, moved in with her brother and took personal inventory, trying to discover a path that did suit her.
One revelation that came from her self-examination was that she was “never, ever going to be that way again” by trying to take her own life. She realized the selfishness of the act and was able to recognize the impact her actions, had she succeeded, would have had on others.
Another insight gleaned at the time was that mundane daily stresses – relationships, money, family -- were insignificant in the big picture. A positive mindset affected her long view and became engrained even with the short window she’d been presented by the medical world.
“I thought life was something you had to learn lessons from to be better than yourself,” Spencer said of her revised thought process. “I thought it was a journey -- a journey that taught you have to love people, how to be a good person and discover what makes you happy.”
That rosy outlook could have taken a crippling 180-degree turn after she experienced inexplicable pain that prompted her to seek medical help and eventually produced her cancer diagnosis. Spencer thought the physical agony she was enduring was tied to her scoliosis. Her back had been surgically repaired at age 11 and she had always known she would need additional treatment as her body grew and changed.
Instead, she was shocked to hear that she had tumors inside her and that more than one organ was affected. Doctors said she was in Stage 3 of her cancer and provided her with three treatment options: chemotherapy, immunotherapy or no treatment at all. She chose inaction, against medical advice, and six months later enrolled in school.
At CCA, she could explore some of life’s biggest questions through the prism of Literature, Psychology and Sociology.
“I thought it was an opportunity for me to kind of live the life I wanted to live,” Spencer said.
She began taking classes at the Colorado Film School, since it merged her loves of movies and writing. But she also took an Acting I course under D’Angelo and was immediately hooked. “She’s a force to be reckoned with,” Spencer said. “I thought she was crazy because of some of the exercises where she had us act like fools, like creature morphs and all that stuff. But she talked about the sense of knowing the self and who you are on the inside. And she taught me to learn my inner self more.”
D’Angelo’s methodology of portraying characters and characteristics through the exploration of one’s own personality -- drawing out the flaws and facets within the mind – was a wakeup call to Spencer. She would audition for “Looking Glass Alice” then continue to ride the production wave all the way through “Glimpses,” missing only one play in the process.
“In acting, I realized that I probably knew one ounce of who I was,” Spencer said. “At 23, I still don’t know who I am. But I’m constantly on this journey of finding out this person I am.”
D’Angelo knew nothing about her student’s medical background when she first crossed paths with Spencer but was immediately taken aback by Spencer’s demeanor. “She was just so on fire and so alive,” the theater director recalled. “There was this spark and drive and desire. In hindsight, she wanted to do this for herself, and she made it happen.”
In a larger sense, the heartfelt commitment to a life’s pursuit that Spencer had once seen in the cast of ‘The Lion King” was only now fully understood from her own personal experience.
“I had never been fully passionate before,” Spencer maintained. “I thought I was. But when I did acting, I finally realized that when you’re passionate about something, you put your whole heart and self into it and you’d do anything – anything – to keep that passion.”
The lengths she’d ultimately take to protect that passion would be astounding, but not before some emotional cracks would initially surface. Spencer had attended CCA for a full semester and a half and finished “Looking Glass Alice” while still managing to keep her secret. She’d done such a solid job in the play that D’Angelo even extended an invitation for Spencer to attend a Rocky Mountain Theatre Association regional competition in Montana to showcase the Red Queen character.
But a week away from home wasn’t the best medicine for Spencer. Feeling burdened by the lie she was living and trapped by her silence, she broke down and couldn’t complete many of the requirements of the acting camp. Things came to a head when Hyer, who attended the competition with Spencer, expressed doubt about whether she could audition well enough to gain acceptance into an upcoming summer theater troupe.
“She just snapped at me,” Hyer remembered. “She was crying and said, ‘You’re so lucky, because you have all the time in the world and you can go and do anything you want. Some people don’t have that. You saying that you’re afraid of failing is really ticking me off.’ She was like, ‘I wish I could do this and have the time for it, but honestly I don’t know much time I have left and I try to do as much as I can.’ ”
Hyer was then the first at CCA to hear Spencer’s cancer admission.
“After that competition,” Hyer added, “I’d say something about fear or not feeling good and she’ll just look at me and say, ‘Montana. …’”
The heightened emotions Spencer felt were exacerbated by the thought of letting D’Angelo down by not completing the acting seminar. Fearing that, and desperate to keep D’Angelo’s total faith, Spencer went to her office and revealed, as she put it, the “big confession.”
“It was crying and tears and release unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed, to be honest,” said D’Angelo, who emanated warmth and concern to Spencer and told her student to confide in others to help her through.
D’Angelo during their long talk also was told about Spencer’s very personal decision not to pursue treatment. “I just remember my heart sinking into my stomach hearing that and telling her, ‘I respect your decision.’ But I knew she was young in a lot of ways and that she was a fighter. I begged her to think about it.”
Spencer wouldn’t be swayed at first. “I wanted to live life like it could end at any moment. I thought it made everything more precious. But I was really fooling myself into thinking that giving up was precious, because it wasn’t.”
The tipping point to seek treatment finally came when Spencer’s best friend since ninth grade joked off the cuff that she couldn’t live without her and that if Spencer died she’d “haunt her grave.”
Immunotherapy started in November 2010 to combat the original and additional tumors that had cropped up since her initial diagnosis. The shots – designed to boost the immune system to defeat the cancer -- were administered weekly for 90 days, then tapered off to once a month. Cheese binges commenced. But Spencer was feeling better. She noted that she “started living a better life, if that makes sense,” and that finally, on good days she could hang out with friends or family “instead of being half-there.”
But through it all there were still bad days filled with migraines and neurological issues that caused twitching and her legs and arms to go numb. There also was navigating a tricky relationship with her mother, with whom she moved in after years apart, and having to rely on her for meals and hygiene and support when the pain became so severe that she couldn’t walk.
“What kept me going through, and what kept a smile on my face was this theater department,” Spencer said. “Even though nobody really knew what I was going through, these people put a smile on your face every single day. They give you hugs, even when you don’t think you need one. They take care of you. These people are unlike any people I’ve ever met.”
The pull of acting was so strong that Spencer returned for the fall 2011 production of “25th” fresh off her summer bone marrow transplant. The spinal tap she’d endured, the excruciating pain that followed surgery that she compared to “Harry Potter when he lost all his bones and had to grow them all back” and the necessity of wearing masks to interact with others was enough to prompt her to plan to at least take it easy in that production but not stay away.
But Spencer couldn’t self-police herself into a reduced role. She ended up assistant directing – which included teaching dance and choreography to the cast and also leading extra rehearsals -- while also being coaxed into joining the cast as an ensemble member.
The workload ended up wearing her body down to the point where she was eventually bedridden, again, taking her out of CCA and “Spoon River Anthology” last spring.
“I look back on it and think, ‘That wasn’t smart,’” she said.
Another surgery designed to alleviate growing pain in her back and neck from her scoliosis followed last summer and necessitated wearing braces and teaching her body to walk again.
“Even though I knew about the cancer, seeing her in that fragile state shocked me,” Hyer recalled.
Spencer needed to walk every day with braces to regain her strength. Chavez often accompanied her as Spencer first took steps across the street from her house, then through the neighborhood and eventually all the way to the end of road as part of rehabilitation.
Bergeron previously aided another one of Spencer’s recoveries by sneaking her candy Easter bunnies and jelly beans as part of her constant support system.
“I think one of the ways Aisha’s been able to keep fighting is that she doesn’t let her body stop her, and it seems like she never has,” D’Angelo said. “The theater department has given her an opportunity to really push it in a way that an athlete pushes their body but in a very different way, too, because the emotions follow.”
Spencer’s emotions reached a pinnacle when she returned this past fall to CCA for “Glimpses,” a play whose central theme was healing. She suspected D’Angelo would ask her to put her heart on the stage as never before, by talking publicly about her physical struggles. But D’Angelo said she “knew it was coming” anyway.
It was at her tryout that Spencer finally said the word aloud – cancer – in the Blackbox Theater in front of D’Angelo and a swathe of empty seats.
“She just kind of let it all out. Everything came out in that audition,” D’Angelo recalled. “She just broke down and I remember holding her and hugging her, and for me, that was her first public declaration. And I knew how big it was for her to say that in an artistic way in a public setting.”
It was even more public once the topic was broached in the production itself, first through rehearsals with cast mates, then in front of an audience. The Student Success Awards in December later featured D’Angelo also talking about Spencer’s cancer. She underscored her student’s courage by holding up a boom box that played a CD with heartfelt expressions from some of Spencer’s closest friends.
Bergeron found it difficult to sum up her feelings in the required two sentences she was given for that CD. “It’s almost like having your own sister or having a child with the love most of us feel for her.”
Such sentiments are needed now more than ever with Spencer facing another, extremely delicate surgical procedure. More tumors are expected to be removed, but the extent of the internal damage isn’t fully known with the metal in her back making accurate internal imaging impossible. Doctors also will attempt to straighten Spencer’s neck, which causes her to walk in a hunched position. A ‘normal’ neck should be about 15-20 degrees; hers currently has a 50-degree curvature.
Best-case scenario is that Spencer has fewer and fewer tumors and goes into remission, can live longer and have neurological pain and tension eased. But even to get there, it will take six months to a year recovery period in order to allow bones to fuse and solidify. The surgery also brings with it the danger of paralysis, or worse, if things go awry.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen and I want to think of the best. That’s kind of where I want to keep my mind at,” Spencer said. “At the same time, I’m realistic and logical, which I really wish I wasn’t half the time.”
And in this case, part of the reality is that Spencer will be separated from the college, and a theatre program, she cherishes for an extended period. It’s a prospect she labels “horrible” because her spirits are uplifted when she’s on campus. “I have more hope … and that in itself is more healing than anything else, keeping that belief that you have something to live for, something to hope for.”
It’s suggested off the cuff that the Black Box Theatre perhaps be replicated in her recovery room to lift her spirits. It is, after all, a place where Spencer has felt like the impossible could happen; where the world wasn’t the ugly place it actually is; where the joy she experienced on stage recalled her youthful belief in Santa Claus on a Christmas Day.
It’s a locale, too, where Spencer’s dramatic and comedic performances have brought scads of color to the dark surrounding hue.
Spencer knows every square inch of the Black Box Theatre, from the curtains where she came out to ominous theme music as the Red Queen, to the spots backstage where numerous pranks were pulled, to the wooden subfloor underneath the black laminate where many of the actors have secretly signed their names and written notes.
Turns out, Spencer has two items written under the floor. One talks about never taking moments in life for granted.
The other lists one simple word.
Photos from top: Aisha Spencer poses in the Blackbox Theatre just before Christmas 2012; Spencer at the Student Success Awards with friends (from left) Crystal Bergeron, Jamie Meek and Tabor Youmans; at Yellowstone National Park with (from left) Jessica Hyer, Bergeron and Alexa Casey; playing the Red Queen in "Looking Glass Alice"; in deep thought as Theater Director Stacey D'Angelo plays a taped tribute from Spencer's peers.