A Dancer Against Cancer

A profile on a doctor who combined her two passions in life

We all dream of having the best of both worlds. In Dr. Irene Hutchins case, this includes researching and working with both medicine and ballroom dancing. The two fields make an unlikely, but dynamic combination.

At a young age, Dr. Hutchin’s mom took her to watch the Nutcracker, and she became enthralled; her passion for dance sparked. Hutchins started ballet at the San Francisco Ballet school at seven-years-old. As she grew older, however, she also discovered her love for science.

Dr. Hutchins poised with her lab coat. Photo Credit: Brian T0

School began to interfere with her intense dance schedule, and at age 13, she exchanged her ballet shoes for ballroom ones. American Smooth, Hutchins favorite style, is classical ballroom mixed with theater arts. “It’s a little more free than the international style and with classy long gowns,” she says.

Starting at fifteen-years-old, Hutchins began competing in National Championships and won in International Latin. She went to Stanford University for her undergraduate degree, all while dancing in the amateur ballroom division. The large time commitment which both medicine and dance required took a toll on Hutchins.

She was forced to make a difficult decision: to continue dancing and give up her college studies or continue her education and miss dancing in the prime of her life. Hutchins says, “There’s never an easy time to incorporate a hobby into your schedule,” and ultimately decided to further her dancing career.

As a dancer, peak condition occurs around 20-years-old. After, it becomes very difficult to maintain the physical ability to dance the same way. The opportunity to dance professionally would never come again, so Hutchins seized it. She didn’t know what the future held, but knew her studies could wait and dance couldn’t. “Do not necessarily what is expected, but what makes you happy,” Dr. Hutchins comments.

Following her freshman year, she moved to New Jersey to train with her new partner, whom she met previously at a competition. Hutchins turned professional and was ranked Top 3 in ballroom dancing in the country for American Rhythm at the United States Open.

She danced professionally for three years before returning to Stanford to continue her studies. Once she returned to college, she gave up ballroom, or so she thought.

Hutchins received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with an emphasis in neuroscience. Unfortunately, because of her extended break for dance, her class schedule changed and she didn’t get to experience her own college graduation.

Now, Dr. Hutchins is training in Hematology and Oncology at Scripps Green Hospital. Ever since she was little, she liked and understood her science classes. She says, “The more I learned about medicine, I realized medicine is more of an art than a science,” thus, her two passions are combined in a way.

Photo Credit: Brian To
Dr. Hutchins and Steve Valentine dancing a ballroom step. Photo Credit: Brian To


During the first year of fellowship training, she treated Steve Valentine, a patient of the leukemia and lymphoma service. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma, and Hutchins was heavily concerned about his medical condition. The surgery, hemotherapy, immunotherapy, and collaboration between doctors left little time for her to get to know her patient. So, they remained unaware of their similar backgrounds.

However, after a few months once his condition began improving, they began small talk and discovered their shared passion for ballroom dancing. Valentine had previously held a world title in same-sex ballroom dancing.

In the following months, Dr. Hutchins incorporated ballroom dancing as part of his physical therapy. Both Valentine and Hutchins hadn’t danced in awhile, and jumped at the opportunity to revisit their love. Using her knowledge of dance and the body has helped Dr. Hutchins develop a recovery routine.

What started as lymphoma recovery evolved into philanthropy. They first debuted as partners at the Dancers for Cancer event, a campaign they co-founded for the Leukemia and Lymphoma society. They continued to perform at other events around Southern California to help raise awareness and funds for cancer. Although competition used to be their strong suit, they enjoy dancing for philanthropy. “Everyone appreciates our mission and you’re not under the scrutiny of judges,” adds Hutchins.

Many patients identify with Valentine’s story, because everybody has a hobby or activity that they enjoy in life. When they think about returning to it, their motivated to get through their illness grows. One of Hutchin’s patients used to be very involved with martial arts. After hearing about Valentine, he considered his own situation and martial arts became his driving force to get up, walk, and eat while enduring difficult times.

Now, Valentine is undergoing another surgery, unrelated to his previous condition. So Dr. Hutchins and him have ended their partnership, for at least the time being. Hutchins has motivated more of the hospital staff to join her in the campaign against cancer such as Dr. Bethel and Dr. Xavier. Other cancer patients have also performed.

Dr. Irene Hutchins and her partner Dr. Arkady Cilenkio at one of their philanthropy performances for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

She now has a different partner, Dr. Arkady Cilenkio. Ironically, he was her first dance partner at fifteen-years-old. He is now a psychiatrist who works in La Jolla as a psychosomatic medicine specialist and the two reunited to dance.

Hutchins plans to continue to use dancing as a way of reaching out to the population at large, showcasing her our mission. She will appear at the annual Dancer vs Cancer fundraisers. At the end of June, Hutchins will graduate from her fellowship at Scripps Green Hospital and begin work at Desert Regional Cancer Center.

Hutchins has been nominated to be a candidate for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Woman of the year 2018.

She recently performed on May 6 with a many of her colleagues at Sufi Mediterranean Cuisine. Their lineup included multicultural dance, ballroom, Latin American, Clogging, Lindy Hop, Indian, and Persian dancing.

She encourages others to research cancer and donate to the Dancer vs Cancer campaign. The end of her 10 week campaign is near; the deadline is May 19. She hopes to raise money to fund blood cancer research and develop treatments for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Dr. Hutchins will also appear at the Man & Woman of the Year Grand Finale Gala for LLS at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel on Saturday May 19.

To learn more about Dr. Hutchins and her Dancer VS Cancer campaign, visit the website http://pages.mwoy.org/sd/sd18/ihutchins

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