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Newsworthy

Alumni Spotlight: Healing Through Words and the Stage
Holly Sidell '95

Holly’s love affair with the theater began in 7th grade with Ms. Lyons and rehearsals in the small gym and performances at Mt. St. Mary’s, before our own Theatre Complex was built. Her passion for stage acting continued to deepen throughout high school, and having the opportunity to perform in the beautiful new Brentwood theater from 1990 through graduation gave her the confidence to go out and seek other stages, first by minoring in Theater Arts at Indiana University, then going on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, among others. Upon choosing not to pursue acting as a career, but rather simply for the sheer joy and love of it, she has been performing regularly on stages around the LA area ever since, while professionally finding her calling first in the holistic healing, mindfulness, and wellness fields, and then, as a writer.

For seven years, she was a regular contributor to The Huffington Post’s Women, GPS for the Soul, Healthy Living, and Los Angeles sections, and she spent five years as the Senior Writer for a non-profit spiritual organization. Her work has most recently been seen in The Los Angeles Times and as a playwright on stage and Zoom. She credits Ms. Wallace, Mr. Stiven, and Mrs. Dunn for igniting the spark of her love of literature and writing that has continued to inspire and drive her forward.

In fall 2016, Holly was diagnosed with aggressive, stage 2 Triple Negative Breast Cancer, with the added risk factor of being a carrier of the BRCA 1 hereditary gene mutation, which brings with it a 50-85% risk of developing breast cancer by age 70, and a 40-60% chance of developing ovarian cancer by age 85, and she naturally turned to writing as a source of healing. Holly started a blog called “So, Apparently I Have Breast Cancer,” in which she shared, no holds barred, the emotional and physical realities of going through this journey at a relatively young age, including a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, followed by a surgery to remove her reproductive organs.

Going through all of that, she felt her feminine identity slipping away. Facing the loss of all the biological organs that deem one a woman, she was forced to take a look at, and deconstruct, many of her programmed beliefs, and realized she had been putting too much of her value and worth in what society and culture expects of, and says, makes an attractive and successful woman, rather than actually being her own woman. Femininity and womanhood, Holly soon learned, are not based on those things, but rather on who we authentically are, inside. She shares that she had to lose all the things she believed made her a woman to actually come to understand and embrace what it truly means to be one.

When Holly was in 11th grade, her mom was diagnosed with, and survived, ovarian cancer, and remembers with gratitude the love and support the Brentwood community offered her and her family during that difficult time. Holly always felt that when she got out the other side of her own cancer journey, she wanted to turn it into something positive with the hope that through sharing vulnerably, she may pass along that love and support she received to others who are suffering and in need of solace. And so, she combined that deep desire with her love of writing and passion for the theatre to create the solo show, Deconstructing Holly.

An autobiographical piece that Holly both wrote and performs (playing over 20 characters!), it’s a journey into “what happens when everything you believe makes you a woman is taken away.” However, it is not just a show about breast cancer; it explores, often with humor (because there’s always got to be humor, she says, and maybe, possibly, even a lightsaber battle!), dating and relationships, self-worth, paralyzing societal and gender expectations and pressures, overcoming disappointment and loss, and, ultimately, triumphing when we find our way to who we truly are, seeing that there was, in fact, a point and a purpose to everything and everyone, even if we didn’t like it at the time. Holly shares,

When we deconstruct all the limiting beliefs that life has put on us, we are finally free to find out – and be – our authentic selves.

Deconstructing Holly premiered on stage in March 2020, with two performances before the COVID-19 shutdowns. In the interim, she offered virtual performances to raise funds for cancer research and patient support programs, as well as for theaters struggling financially due to the pandemic. She looks forward to getting the show back on stage again in August at The Hollywood Fringe Festival. After that, she hopes to take it to other venues and organizations that would find its message helpful and hopeful, and where it can elicit thoughtful discussion and forums on the issues addressed.

Holly is inspired by how people’s hearts and bodies can be broken, but how they heal that brokenness and re-build to become something new, even better than before - possibly beyond what they ever originally imagined. Everyone has a story, everyone is going through, or has gone through, a hard battle. In her writing and her show, Holly shares her own battle, and how she continues to overcome it, as a way to let others know they are not alone. “I am a breast cancer survivor and ovarian cancer previvor,” Holly says, “and even though sharing that journey is part of what I write and talk about, it’s only part of my story. Because who we are can’t be properly defined by one word or label, no matter how hard life tries to make it that way.”

Holly also speaks and writes as a health advocate on navigating the process and recovery of breast cancer and the BRCA gene mutation (practically, spiritually, and emotionally), and to all women on her own experience in losing everything she believed made her a woman only to come to understand and embrace what it truly means to her now to be one. Through outreach programs, Holly mentors young aspiring writers as well as other women in the midst of their own cancer journeys.

You can find out more at www.deconstructingholly.com, or by following Holly on IG: @hollyjsidell.

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