When Nancy Heerens-Knudson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985, her son - who was in kindergarten at the time - thought she was in the hospital for an elbow problem. He didn't know about the breast cancer until he was in sixth grade.
So after he saw her one-woman play Busted, which she wrote in 2001, it was like hearing for the first time about much of what his mother went through. "He was enormously touched because he missed so much of it," Heerens-Knudson said.
The story, emotional trauma, and humorous anecdotes will be more familiar to people who've had cancer, as well as to their families and friends. In telling her tale of 17 years dealing with breast cancer, Heerens-Knudson has tapped into near-universal experiences. "It's just my story, and it's a lot of people's stories," she said. "It's not just about breast cancer." She sees the work as both an educational tool and an entertainment.
Heerens-Knudson will be performing Busted next week at Genesis Medical Center East in Davenport, as part of events related to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Quad Cities Race for the Cure. (The race is scheduled for June 14.) It will be her 18th performance, including one at Augustana College last year.
Despite its grim subject matter, Busted comes mostly from a warm place. The author, who is full-time physician's assistant and lives in Iowa City, has dabbled in standup comedy, and she wanted to relate her experiences in a way that would make audiences laugh at times. "What I really want to do stand-up about is breast cancer," she said. "I was trying to find a way to do that." Of course, that topic wouldn't go over well in a comedy club.
The often-light-hearted nature of the work can be seen in the titles of some of the its seven parts: "The Twins' Final Tour" and "From 36-D to De-pressed," for example.
The play had a long incubation period, and even after it was written, Heerens-Knudson needed some prompting to present it to the public. What got Busted started was a theatre instructor from Heerens-Knudson's college days, who showed her a play about breast cancer. She didn't like it. "He challenged me to write my own," she said.
She started with her own experiences, but she wasn't sure that they qualified as a play. She had originally envisioned a multi-character work, but her instructor encouraged her to keep the focus on what she'd been through. "I thought it was a performance piece, a monologue," she said. But her instructor insisted it was a play. She refined it at workshops and finished it in summer 2001.
Still, "I didn't have any real plans for performing it." Then her sister had a recurrence of cancer, and Heerens-Knudson performed the piece as a fundraiser in Iowa City.
Her hesitancy to perform is understandable. "It's pretty personal," she said. "One of the things that's been helpful is the feedback I've gotten on it" from others who've dealt with breast cancer. Busted is Heerens-Knudson's second play, and while she'd like to spend more time writing, she still doesn't consider herself a playwright.
But she is interested in having her play seen by more people, and wants to get a performance professionally videotaped so it can get wider distribution. "I'd like to find a way to give it away," she said.
She doesn't sound eager to put the script out there for others to perform, however - mostly because it's so personal, but also because there are certain physical requirements because of her double mastectomy. "I don't know if it would be a play other people could do," she said. "They'd have to be flat-chested." In fact, she hasn't even copyrighted the work.
And the author also doesn't want to take on a heavy performance schedule. "I don't exactly aspire to Busted on Broadway," she said.
Busted will be performed Thursday, May 8, at 6:30 p.m., in the lower level of the Adler Health Education Center of Genesis Medical Center East, 1227 East Rusholme in Davenport. The performance is free, but reservations (421-2873) are requested. For more information about the play or the Quad Cities Race for the Cure, visit (http://www.qcraceforthecure.org).