Inspiring Story: Dancer J.G. Chakyo and Rheumatoid Arthritis


December 5, 2019



A lot of my patients are living with Rheumatoid Arthritis. They see me either because they have inflammatory eye disease or for screening due to potential side effects of their arthritis medications. One patient, Julia Chayko, ended up channeling her passion for dance into writing when she received her arthritis diagnosis.

Check out her inspiring story below or here:


And look for more on her blog here:


– Briar


Dancer J.G. Chakyo and Rheumatoid Arthritis

I remember the first time I slipped on a pair of ballet shoes — the way the soft leather hugged my foot, the way they blushed under the glow of the studio lights. I loved gliding across the polished floor, feeling the grainy texture of the wooden barre beneath my hands and looking at the mirrored walls that showed us how well we were doing, and how far we had to go. Those shoes were my first step into a world of music, movement, and story. Dance was the origin of my creative life. It stimulated me, led me to the theater, and showed me the power of my own body.


My love affair with dance began in a Saturday morning arts class when I was five years old. After my sixth grade teacher cast me in the school play, a musical version of Tom Sawyer, I fell in love with theater. Ballet was my first love, but I quickly learned to appreciate and explore other styles of dance. I studied theater in college and afterwards worked multiple jobs to support my growing artistic life. I was a cashier, a server, and finally a medical secretary. I continued to audition and was cast for roles in multiple shows and had the opportunity to train with a local dance troupe, where I learned Latin and ballroom dance.

Body drama

At age 38, I was still heavily involved in dance and theater and in the best shape of my life. One fall morning, I woke with stiff swollen joints. I was groggy, and my body felt thick, like I was fighting off the effects of a sedative. My skin was hot to the touch. It felt like flu. As the day wore on, I started to feel better, but the next morning, it happened all over again. This pattern continued for a few weeks. It was like no flu I’d ever known. My family doctor referred me to a rheumatologist, who recognized my symptoms and diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

JG Chakyo Rheumatoid Arthritis

J.G. Chakyo has found new ways to express herself and her creativity. (Image by Damon Calderwood.)

I had spent most of my life dancing and performing — suddenly

 I was face to face with a beast that threatened to steal my agility. The vigorous life I knew began to change. I was working full-time, attending rehearsals and dance classes. The fatigue made it difficult to manage an eight-hour day, so I switched to part-time work. My swollen joints could no longer absorb the impact of the dance floor. I took a break from theater while I tried to adjust to new limitations and find ways to manage my symptoms. The creative world I had built started crumbling around me.

Seeking stories

Despite the decline in my physicality and wellness, I was determined to maintain my artistic life, so I revived an early childhood passion — writing. Instead of telling stories on the stage, I would tell them on the page. I had always written. It was as much a part of me as my own skin. My great-grandmother encouraged the writing of thank-you notes, and that blossomed into poetry and short stories. It wasn’t long before I had accumulated a drawer full of notebooks. My first publication was a nonfiction piece about my great-grandmother’s farm. That was followed by a couple of short stories and poetry. I started writing about living with RA in a blog called The Old Lady in My Bones, which connected me with amazing communities and people. I discovered another path into the artistic world and new opportunities began to present themselves. I contributed to a book on living with rheumatic disease, wrote guest posts for websites in the United Kingdom and Canada, and became a blogger with CreakyJoints, an online patient community. The words gave me power over my disease and helped me find a way around the obstacles.

Finding new rhythm

Movement remained an essential part of my life. It was an instinct that would not be suppressed. I explored new ways to move through physiotherapy. Swimming filled the gap of the dance studio. I went on daily walks and did yoga to maintain my strength and flexibility. Small goals restored my sense of accomplishment, helped me rebuild my stamina, and gave me power over my disease. I returned to theater on a reduced schedule and signed up for a weekly ballroom dance class with my spouse. Measure by measure, I worked on restoring bits of the life I had left behind.

Last fall, my partner took on the task of directing a holiday pantomime. I was offered the role of choreographer. For three months, I created and taught solo and ensemble dances for a cast of 14. It challenged me and rekindled my creativity. I was a bit rusty at first, but eventually, my body remembered. The years of training were carved into my muscles. Rehearsals rejuvenated me and filled me with a sense of triumph. I was back in the world I loved. The show was a milestone moment for me, not just for the restoration of my dance life, but for the fact that partial proceeds were to be donated to Cassie and Friends, a local organization supporting children living with rheumatic disease.

Life is not stagnant — it changes and flows, and we are adaptable enough to flow with it. The elements that make us who we are don’t disappear in the face of chronic illness — they simply transform. I learned how to choreograph my own routine, and I look forward to the next dance.

Dancer J.G. Chakyo and Rheumatoid Arthritis