Courtesy Daily News Record, Jan. 9, 2012
Somewhere in the middle of talking about her stage four terminal cancer and an upcoming play documenting her life, Sarah Pharis, 32, begins striking her “Katherine Hepburn face.”
Sitting beside her on a deep purple velour couch at her Harrisonburg home, Ingrid De Sanctis, 46, launches into details of writing the play, called “Sarah and the Dinosaur,” a funny and sometimes heartbreaking look at her former theater assistant’s battle with ocular melanoma.
In conversation, the duo — who met in the late ’90s at Eastern Mennonite University — are a constant flurry of eccentricities and excitement.
Chatting about hopes for the play and making jokes, their dialogue often builds into hearty laughter and, only briefly, the two share moments of solemnity.
Which is why it’s hard to believe anybody’s talking about cancer at all. But as De Sanctis and Pharis are quick to point out, the cancer is just a bizarre, unexpected catalyst in Pharis’ life that set the two friends on a journey to rekindle their friendship and create a play about “choosing life.”
“For me personally to be able to step out of [the play] and go, ‘OK it’s my name and it’s based on my story, but it’s a story that a lot of people are living;’ it changes it for me somehow,” said Pharis, of Staunton, who was told she had six months to live when the eye cancer spread to her liver in 2010. “[The play is] not about me and it’s not really even about cancer it’s just about… ”
“Choosing life,” De Sanctis says, finishing the thought.
Yes, Pharis has terminal cancer and yes, that’s the basis of the play, but “Sarah and the Dinosaur” is really a larger metaphor for something that Pharis seems to demonstrate so well in her own life — overcoming hardships and living life to the fullest.
Up until last week, the play was nothing more than a script filling about 50 pages, but EMU’s Lee Eshleman Studio and ShenanArts Theatre in Staunton have recently agreed to host the play, funded entirely by donations, this spring.
“It’s important for our community to hear this story about this very courageous woman,” said Diane Stewart, vice chair of the ShenanArts Theatre board of directors. “I think [the board] just felt like she’s a strong and important person in our community, it’s important that her story be told.”
The play, De Sanctis says, is her own way of coping with Pharis’ illness.
“When you watch a young person get cancer and know that their years are limited, you do want to do something and for me the only something was [writing this play],” said De Sanctis, just before drawing a parallel between a Mitch Albom book and her and Sarah’s own loving friendship. “You know the book ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’? … Here we have our some days with Sarah, where we’re going to put on a play and I get all this extra time with her. It’s pretty cool.”
In the drawing Sarah made for the play’s website, she is wearing a crown as she shakes the hand of a giant dinosaur, naturally, wearing Converse high tops.
The drawing echoes Pharis’ own sentiments about her cancer. You just can’t take it too seriously.
Pharis was first diagnosed with ocular melanoma in 2006 at the age of 26. Though symptoms had been present for four years, doctors were unable to diagnose the melanoma until a tumor grew to 15 millimeters. Pharis had the tumor removed, which can blur vision or leave victims blind.
“In my case, if I look at you through my right eye, it looks as though Picasso was left in charge of your face,” writes Pharis on her blog, “Love x Infinity2,” which originally began as a way to update friends and family members about her cancer and evolved into a resource for people with ocular melanoma.
Living Life ‘Awake’
The cancer spread to her liver in February 2010, which is when the melanoma is considered terminal. Almost two years after being told she had six months to live, Pharis is still proving doctors wrong. Pharis has had tumors removed from her liver and left ovary, which is the only way to treat the kind of cancer Pharis has.
“With any hidden illness, I don’t look like a cancer patient. The kind of cancer I have, radiation and chemo don’t work on it,” Pharis says, like she’s mocking the words she’s likely had to say a thousand times, tired with the sound of them.
“I, personally, and privately struggle with a lot of depression and a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear and it’s debilitating and chronic.
“On the inside, I look like one of those people who are incapable of getting dressed and bathing and being themselves, it’s a true disability,” she says, just before she drops a line that has De Sanctis smiling ear to ear and scrambling for a pen and paper. “But my vanity is a lot stronger than my cancer.”
And though one may wonder how Pharis can be so whimsical and blunt in the same breath, that’s just the beauty of Pharis and her uncharacteristically good attitude, says De Sanctis.
“It’s very hard for me not to add to the play,” said De Sanctis. “That’s the hard thing about being around Sarah; she’s constantly kind of magical.”
A list of 35 things Pharis wants to do before her 35th birthday, reads just as one would expect: “Participate in an act of guerilla gardening, take a chocolate bath, see Tom Jones in concert, reconcile with my ‘enemies,’ send a message in a bottle, go sailing, live to be 35.”
“[If] you walk out [of the play and] after 90 minutes are more awake to your life, that’s why I want to tell this story,” said De Sanctis. “In a moment where death is right in front of her, [Sarah’s] just chosen to be really awake in her life.”
“Sarah and the Dinosaur,” will be performed March 14-18, at EMU, and April 26-28 at the ShenanArts Theatre. Show times for the EMU performance are 7:30 p.m., March 14-17, and 3 p.m., March 18. For more information contact De Sanctis at 540-560-6626.
In addition, more information on “Sarah and the Dinosaur,” is available on the play’s Facebook website.