As PNB’s newest principal, Ben Griffiths, attacked turns and leaps while opening the ballet’s latest premiere, “Empire Noir,” last month, any trace of the ordeal he had endured from late 2008 to early 2009 was long gone.
Yet, he says now, “It was such a big life event. It’s in the back of my mind.”
The event Griffiths refers to is facing testicular cancer at just 24 years old, not long after his promotion to soloist at PNB.
Testicular cancer is a relatively rare form of cancer with roughly 9,000 men affected every year, according to the American Cancer Society. Most of them are young to middle-aged with an average age of 33 at diagnosis, though it can occur in children and teens, as well as older men over 55.
In November 2008 following PNB’s second program of the season, Griffiths had pain in his lower abdomen that he thought might be due to an injury. Injuries are common among professional dancers with approximately four to five PNB dancers (an average of 10 percent of the company) out during each repertory program due to injury.
Upon the urging of his partner, Jordan Pacitti, who was also dancing with PNB at the time, Griffiths went to see his doctor at Northwest Hospital. Soon thereafter, he learned that his pain had a more insidious cause.
“It was scary as hell,” Pacitti recalls. “He came out of the doctor’s office and said, ‘I have cancer.’”
Fortunately, Griffiths’ cancer was caught early, and his lymph nodes had not yet been affected. Diagnosis was followed quickly by surgery to remove the cancer. His prognosis was very good – he had a 97 percent chance of a cure.
Six weeks following surgery, Griffiths underwent a course of chemotherapy, a combination of three different drugs, which left him tired, nauseous and without hair. When he performed in Balanchine’s “Jewels” in late January 2009, he wore a wig.
Remarkably he missed only the ballet’s annual Nutcracker performance. That fall, however, he had been learning the role of the Prince for the first time and wouldn’t have the chance to perform it.
Griffiths is originally from Boise and his family wanted him to return there for treatment. But, he says he never really considered it given his support network – friends and Pacitti – in Seattle. Pacitti mentions that leadership at PNB was very supportive, allowing him to accompany Griffiths to appointments as needed.
According to Matthew Grierson, MD, a founder of Seattle’s Dance and Performing Arts Medicine group, those in Griffiths’ situation who fare best have support. He says, “The ones that do the best have the most support. Either it can go really well or not.” Dr. Grierson, who studied modern dance at the University of Utah, specializes in physical/sports medicine and rehabilitation at Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center. He danced in the 2002 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies in Salt Lake City.
Then there’s also the matter of resilience. Dr. Grierson says, “[Professional dancers] are going to do everything they can to get back. They are resilient.”
Pacitti, who was with PNB for a decade, says that the ballet’s demanding training, which starts young, and the intense competition that comes with a dance career, create resilience. “There is always someone younger coming up,” he says.
And so, the Silent Assassin, as he is called by his friends, was back on stage two months following his diagnosis. Griffiths says that there are injuries that have had him recuperating longer than cancer did.
His treatment was followed by physician check-ups at regular intervals, which gradually became spaced further and further apart as those passed uneventfully. He was officially deemed cured in early 2014, five years post-treatment with no recurrence.
When Griffiths was named a principal dancer last fall, it was an especially sweet triumph. Not only had he reached the top of his company, but along the way fought a serious personal battle with what Pacitti calls a “quiet strength” -- and won.
When Griffiths dances in PNB’s Ballet on Broadway program, which opens April 14, the Silent Assassin will undoubtedly be “killing it” onstage at McCaw Hall. But, thankfully, there’s only one thing he needs to be concerned with now – his dancing.
April is testicular cancer awareness month. For more information about the disease, see https://www.cancer.org/cancer/testicular-cancer.