Local Psychiatrist Takes Her Battle with Cancer to the Stage

Nancy Rappaport, a psychiatrist and Harvard professor, wrote a one-woman show about her disease.

Nancy Rappaport

Nancy Rappaport/Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

As a child psychiatrist, Nancy Rappaport’s job is to listen to her patients’ most intimate thoughts. Soon, she’ll turn the tables and present her own inner dialogue to the world.

Rappaport is preparing to unveil Regeneration, a one-woman show she wrote about her battle with breast cancer and journey back to health. She’ll perform the play for the public and students at Harvard Medical School, where she is an associate professor, and physicians at Mount Auburn Hospital, then bring it to Mount Auburn Cemetery—a place where Rappaport sought solace and healing throughout her illness.

“I hope this is not just about being sick and having breast cancer and then healing, but it’s also about mortality and what do we do when we get to look on the other side, and how do you make meaning of that?” she says. “I’m trying to capture that process of weaving back and forth between fear and serenity.”

While Rappaport is primarily a doctor and professor, she’s no stranger to the written word. She penned a memoir about her mother’s suicide in 2009, and in 2012 wrote a guide to teaching children with behavioral challenges. Regeneration, she says, was born of a desire to both process her own feelings, and to create something meaningful for an audience.

“It was extremely comforting to feel that as my body was faltering, my imagination, my commitment to communicate to other people the journey that I was on, was alive and vibrant,” she says.

The show is also, Rappaport says, a reminder to doctors. Her diagnosis, which she learned in August of last year, was for a relatively minor form of breast cancer. Nonetheless, Rappaport says the experience was an arresting reversal of roles, from veteran doctor to uncertain patient.

“I think there are lots of diagnoses that we give as doctors that, as we give them, they may sound like the common cold equivalent,” she says. “I think it’s important for doctors to be reminded of the power of your words, and how it can either be a comfort or abrasive or isolating.”

The whole affair may sound macabre—a play about cancer, performed in a cemetery—but Rappaport insists that it’s a celebration of life and the human experience, as well as a “love letter to Mount Auburn Cemetery,” a space she treasures.

“I’m hopeful,” she says, “that what you’re going to see is somebody who’s spirited and vibrant and very much alive telling a story about getting to the other side.”

Regeneration will be performed at 3 p.m., 10/1 and 10/2, in Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here.