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Cookie Joe Arthur teaches a dance class July 24 in Sugar Land. (Photo by Landan Kuhlmann)

About two months ago, Cookie Joe Arthur learned she had Stage 2 breast cancer, just a short time after finding a lump during a self-examination.

Ever since then, she’s been undergoing weekly chemotherapy sessions at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

The diagnosis and subsequent treatment would be a challenge for anyone.

But Arthur, 67, no stranger to overcoming obstacles in recent years, is hoping to use the setback to raise awareness of the disease causing some 281,550 new cases each year, she said.

“I just want to use what could be a sad, challenging or despondent time and turn it around to say, ‘What can we do to make it useful and purposeful?’” she said. “This was given to me for a purpose – so I’ve got to make it purposeful.”

On Aug. 13-14, Cookie Joe’s Dancin’ School in Sugar Land, which Arthur founded more than 40 years ago, will partner with the Exchange Club of Sugar Land to host a two-day blood drive aimed at bringing a greater awareness to the treatment of breast cancer and helping MD Anderson with a blood shortage. The goal is having 100 donors register, Arthur said, and at least 25 potential donors had signed up as of July 23.

Arthur’s breast cancer diagnosis is only the most recent physical setback she’s experienced in recent years, but she has not stopped teaching classes at the dance studio. She underwent double hip replacement surgery in 2014.

“We’ve always used this school to teach more than just dance,” Arthur said. “We always wanted to teach our dancers to be gracious, compassionate and take care of each other and the community. Be a shining light – a light for the Lord, and a light for compassion and giving.”

Conversely, Arthur’s spirit appears to have become as much a part of the fabric of the school she founded as dancing itself. So when the Cookie Joe’s community heard of her diagnosis, they rallied together in support.

“She’s an inspiration to all of us, and I know all my daughters look up to her. She’s always been strong, and she continues to be strong,” said Missouri City’s Eric DeCarlos, whose daughters have been attending Cookie Joe’s for 10 years. “It was heartbreaking to see her go through this because she is the role model that the kids look up to. All of us want her to get better.”

Pushing through

Arthur said her cancer treatment has had a debilitating effect over the last several months. At 7 a.m. each Monday, she goes in to MD Anderson to get the “red devil” as she calls it put into her body.

At times, she said, it can feel almost unbearable.

“In the midst of that week, I don’t want to talk to anybody, I go isolate and I’m nauseous and depressed. I’m sad, I cry, I don’t think it’s fair and I pray,” she said. “Then later, I start crawling out of that dark place and think, ‘I made it again.’ ”

The resulting muscle weakness in her legs has kept Arthur from teaching as much as she did before. At times she is limited to an hour or less per day, though she said she tries to be up at the school daily.

Less than two weeks before the diagnosis, Arthur said she was sitting with her husband reminiscing about all of their blessings. But now, even as she battles a disease that impacts one of every eight women in the United States, her innate determination to fight and find the blessing in each moment remains unchanged.

“There’s no challenge we overcome that doesn’t make us stronger. I look forward to looking back and saying, ‘This was part of my story and part of where I am today.’ … Life is full of valleys and mountains. It’s a moveable dynamic thing that happens,” she said. “… I record how I feel every day, so when I feel at my lowest I can listen back to the days I feel good. I always say if I could bottle how I feel today, on Wednesday I can take it out and remember that it’s going to be OK.”

Shining bright

Part of that determination, Arthur said, is natural. A large part of it, however, is derived from the same passion that drove her to found the school 45 years ago.

“Not having the kids worry is very important to me – I want them to see me smiling,” she said. “… Every child that walks through my school becomes my child, and their kids are my grandkids. It’s a very strong emotional connection to my kids.”

The best way she knows to do that, she said, is by being an example of the drive that she has taught her kids. More than 90 percent of her 200 students are girls, she said, giving her experience and response an even greater importance.

“If one out of eight of them are going to experience it, they’re seeing that it’s doable and that we can overcome it,” she said.

That attitude, DeCarlos said, is a major reason the school’s community has rallied around their beloved instructor.

“It shows her faith and her strength of will. She puts others first, and understands the role she plays here and how important that is to the kids to see her persevere in the face of difficult odds,” he said. “She understands that that’s what family means. And this is a family.”

Looking ahead

A trip to Cookie Joe’s over the weekend was full of aspiring dancers training. And Arthur was there on the scene, flashing a bright smile and looking in on several of the classes.

It’s what she knows best.

“Just as any parent is, I want to inspire them to excellence, greatness, positivity, and courage,” she said. “…I’m highly motivated to be the example – we accept God’s challenges. I feel like I’m an instrument of the Lord.”

For the parents of those in her charge, she has danced her way into the fabric of their lives.

“She’s just this tiny little amazing woman with this huge heart and go-to spirit. She’s unstoppable, and she pushes us all to be our best self. She’s taken all the adversity head on,” said Sugar Land resident Lisa Blank, whose daughter has taken lessons at Cookie Joe’s for the last three years. “… If you need a pep talk, you go talk to Cookie. We’re so happy that she’s here, she’s feeling good and she’s doing what she can.”

Arthur said she has always set lofty goals for herself, and that beating cancer is the next one up. The school is scheduled to perform on June 4, 2022 at the Wortham Center Theater in Downtown Houston – and if Arthur has her way, she’ll lead the dance troops like she always has.

“Right now I’m bald and have no hair, but that’s OK because I still wear earrings and makeup and try to look cute, and I’ve got some great hats,” she said. “I intend to be there. I may not have hair or be as well – but I will dance.”

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