Every three weeks, Maggie Kudirka’s Pomeranians—Momma Mia and Miss Vickie—get chicken.
The treat is part of a ritual Maggie has maintained since 2014, when she learned that she had metastatic breast cancer. She was 23 years old.
Chemotherapy infusions every 21 days keep her alive. She has endured more than 90 sessions.
“I’ve gotten used to it after five years,” she says.
After her treatment, she and her mother go to a Panera Bread restaurant near their home in Ellicott City, Maryland. Although she doesn’t eat meat, Maggie often orders chicken noodle soup. She picks out the chicken and brings it home to her dogs.
“So they know, ‘Oh, she left early in the morning, and she’s going to come back with chicken.’ And they’re all excited to see me.”
Chemotherapy is grueling, so after the chicken greeting, Maggie needs a nap. Momma Mia nestles close by her side, doing her most essential job.
“She helps me forget about cancer, sometimes,” Maggie says.
Sled Dogs and Toe Shoes
Maggie grew up in a dog-show home. Her parents, Aldona and Robert, bred and showed Siberian Huskies but stopped while raising their four children.
At 4, Maggie, the youngest, entered a dance studio. From then on, her childhood was ballet, 24/7, she says.
While she was in college, the family downsized to Pomeranians, buying two retired show dogs from Donna Lynn Wright’s Lynnwright Pomeranians, in Bel Air, Maryland. One Pom attached herself to Aldona, and the other picked Maggie’s dad.
“I was like, ‘I don’t have a dog,’ ” Maggie recalls.
So Vickie, a third Lynnwright Pom, entered the Kudirka household as Maggie’s pet.
In 2013, Maggie moved to New York City for the opportunity of a lifetime—a full scholarship with the Joffrey Ballet Concert Group.
Vickie stayed behind in Maryland.
It was during visits home that Maggie got the first sign something was wrong. The warning came from Vickie.
“I would lie on the ground to watch TV, and Vickie would come up and dig in my left armpit every time I came home,” she says.
Maggie thought that the dog just missed her and was trying to leave her scent on the person she loved.
Cancer was the last thing on the young ballerina’s mind.
Struck by Lightning
The idea did not occur to her, even when she found a pea-sized lump on her left breast and developed relentless pain in her sternum. At times it was so bad she could barely breathe.
As a ballerina, she was used to pain. She danced through it.
When she eventually got to a doctor, the diagnosis was beyond belief. She had a particularly aggressive form of cancer and it was already in her bones. It is known as de novo metastatic breast cancer, a kind that spreads from the start.
It is rare, striking 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancer patients, and is usually seen in older women—certainly not in someone in her 20s with no known risk factors and with the superhuman fitness of a ballerina.
Maggie had just learned that no one is immune.
She also understood the meaning behind Vickie’s odd behavior, the sniffing and digging at her armpit.
“As I started going through chemo, she stopped doing it,” Maggie recalls. She believes that the drugs were killing the cancer and the dog was no longer picking up the scent of the illness.
“I put two and two together, and I realized, like, ‘Oh, she was actually sniffing my cancer and trying to tell me something,’ ” Maggie told akc family dog in a phone interview.
A double mastectomy and a cocktail of powerful drugs that started in July 2014 wiped out all signs of cancer. Maggie tried to return to her normal life.
But things had changed. Her world now included doctors, scans, screenings, and chemotherapy infusions. The illness made it impossible for her to continue the rigorous life of a Joffrey ballerina.
Maggie found other outlets for her talent and creativity, plunging into cancer advocacy, traveling to conferences, raising money for research, and staying active in dance.
When the drugs made her hair fall out, she started a website and blog, calling herself the Bald Ballerina. (Her hair has since grown back.)
In January, she organized and performed in her sixth “No One Can Survive Alone” benefit concert. The event raises funds for her treatment—which is approaching $1 million. Dancers from the top of the profession come from all over to support her.
“Whatever sparks my interest, I do,” she says. “I’m taking every travel opportunity that I can because I don’t know when I’ll have to stop traveling because of my health.”
A Bad Place
Last spring, after a long stretch with no signs of active cancer, doctors found recurrence in Maggie’s sternum, spine, hips, and femur. Her spirits plunged.
“After three and a half years with no evidence of disease, it was devastating to her,” her mother, Aldona, says.
When her usually optimistic, sunny daughter started crying in the middle of a speech for a cancer advocacy group, Aldona knew they had to do something fast. She suggested that Maggie get a canine traveling companion.
Vickie, now a senior with heart disease, was not up to the task.
They needed a new dog.
A year earlier, Aldona had called Wright to talk about a puppy. But she wanted a female and all the pups in Wright’s recent litters had been males. When two females did appear later, Wright said she wanted to keep them.
After the recurrence, Aldona decided to give Wright a call, on the off chance she might have a suitable candidate.
“I was just getting ready to text her when a text came in from her,” Aldona says. Wright said that she had decided to keep only one of the female pups. She was seeking a home for the other, an orange sable named Momma Mia. Aldona was the first person she called.
“It was almost as if the universe realized that Maggie needed this puppy,” Aldona recalls. As soon as Momma appeared, Maggie’s mood made a 180. “The dog saved Maggie’s life.”
“As soon as we got her, I was no longer depressed,” Maggie says. “She just puts a smile on my face. Anytime I look at her, I’m smiling at her, even if I’m mad at her … If she does something she’s not supposed to, I’m still smiling because she just loves being here so much and being with me so much.”
Momma Mia doesn’t have any special skills. Her talent is understanding Maggie and it is a job at which she excels.
“She just knows when to be playful and like a puppy, and then she also knows when to scale it back and be a comfort,” Maggie says. “She can read my emotions and what I need really well.”
Often now, when Maggie takes to the road, she brings along her four-footed buddy and all the comforts of home—Sleepypods, blankets, beds, a playpen. “I try to make it as comfortable for her as possible because I don’t want her not to be happy traveling or she doesn’t want to go. Then she’s not doing the job I got her for.”
A Curtain Rises
Momma Mia came to Maggie purely for companionship and support, but Wright pointed out that the dog had show potential.
“So I said to Maggie, why not give her a try?” Aldona recalls. Luckily, they live near a show site that offers frequent events.
With years of dog-show experience, Aldona knew that Momma Mia had one key trait that makes a dog shine in the ring— attitude. “She wants everyone to look at her, all the time.”
In October, Maggie and Momma Mia debuted on a stage that was new and strange to both of them: the dog-show conformation ring. Wright met them there to help with grooming and to make “us a perfect duo,” Maggie wrote in a Facebook post.
By their second show, the ballerina and her year-old fluff ball were on the winner’s podium, having earned their first point toward their AKC championship.
It’s a different world, but Maggie acknowledges that there are similarities between dancing and dog showing—the rehearsing, discipline, personal preference in judging, and the drive “to exhibit perfection.”
For Momma Mia, it’s just all pure fun. In fact, her over-the-top exuberance has cost them in the ring. One judge told Maggie that the team would have won a point if Momma Mia had been better behaved.
“She loves it,” Maggie told Family Dog. “When it is show day, she barks in the car till we get to the show. She has her tail up in and out of the ring. She gets so excited sometimes she jumps on the judge on the table and spins like a ballet dancer when she’s walking.”
Originally ran in the March/April 2020 issue of AKC Family Dog.