Peter, now in his 50s and a Sydney native, talks about his lifetime commitment to dancing, both practicing and teaching, and now running Australia’s largest Showcase dance competitions. Dance, both competing and working, has taken Peter to China, Malaysia and the USA. He candidly shares his life story including being adopted, struggling with weight gain growing up, being gay, and establishing his business, and his perspective of embracing hospital admissions with a positive mindset.
Read the transcript of this podcast below:
Keegan: Hi, and welcome to the CF Strong podcast. CF Strong covers the successes and challenges faced by those living with cystic fibrosis. You’ll hear real first person stories, conversations with health professionals, friends and partners. Just a heads up the guests in this episode may share their personal views about treatments and health management. But please remember this is not medical advice, and you should always follow the advice of your clinic team regarding your health. My name’s Keegan Bakker. I’m a radio presenter and cystic fibrosis community care ambassador. Today my guest is Peter Oxford, a dancer and entrepreneur. He’s certainly faced some challenges throughout his life living with CF, but definitely has not let them stop him from some truly incredible achievements with his dance career and his own dance studio. He’s traveled the world and industry accolades and inspired many, many young people, including some with CF themselves. That is just scratching the surface. Let’s hear the full story from Peter himself.
Peter: I’m Peter Oxford. I’m based in Sydney. I was born here. I’ve lived here all my life and I’m 50 years old now I would say. I grew up as a dancer and then I operated the dance studio for over 12 years. And during that time I started and created the Australian Dance Championships and that sort of took over the dance studio life and decided to give that up and take on showcase Australian Dance Championships full time. It basically runs my life and has been going for, this is 26 years now.
Keegan: So safe to say you’ve been pretty successful in that field. Any particular achievements, just career wise or anything that stands out as being highlights?
Peter: As a dancer, I was very competitive as a child. I grew up in the shopping center circuit as a dancer. I went on to be the first Australian to win back-to-back titles in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Orlando at the American dance competitions over there. Then learning about their concept, brought it back to Australia. I’ve had shows that I’ve produced and choreographed go to China, Malaysia, the US. I’ve been very successful with my dance studio, with the showbiz kids, the show group I had, and obviously they’re moving on to showcase becoming the largest national dance competition and the first of its kind ever created in Australia, giving countless opportunities to dancers, to then progress onto their careers all over the world.
Keegan: That’s incredibly impressive. The fact it’s not only the success that you’ve had career wise, but also every travel involved. It’s got a very international flavor to it and you’ve been all over the world and being someone who’s had or has CF, I can imagine it would have been a challenge. It’s something you’ve had to actively manage or has it just been in the background?
Peter: It has been in the background. A lot of my travel that I did in my early twenties, I did on my own. I remember going to the States when I was 20 years old and Canada for like four weeks and travelling on my own. So obviously, you know, you have to take care of yourself when you’re traveling. That was never sort of an issue. I can’t travel, I’ve got CF or it’s going to be hard, but it was just okay, pack up the medication, get the nebulizer that will work in that country and travel, see the world. And that was always what I wanted to do. And if I did travel with someone that wasn’t an issue for them to travel with me. There’s probably only been once I got sick overseas and that was in LA, I actually got sick on the flight, traveling to LA. I got swine flu and ended up in Long Beach Hospital ER and the doctors are like, you need to get out of here. Another time I was in Singapore, eating dinner, we’d been at universal studios all day and obviously I hadn’t drank enough fluid because it’s very humid over there. That day we had dinner outdoors, I coughed blood and you can’t panic. So we’re trying to get me back to the hotel to take the medication you can to stop bleeding, but then we did stop that day to get to [inaudible 03:43] Bangkok the next day so I actually had to fly and you’re not supposed to fly when you’ve had hemoptysis, but I did it.
Keegan: I think it’s … I don’t know if stubbornness is the right word, but you certainly have that kind of attitude that you sort of kept press on and say you sort of here now, and it seems to have worked for you, but was there any planning beforehand, like when you were going on travel?
Peter: No, I was always doing, tune-ups like a guy who was going to be a long trip, so they knew like he’s going away, like have a tune up before you go because that’s pretty stock standard for someone going to travel. I’ve always been told, carry enough antibiotics with you, try and get home if you have to, that’s never been the case except for that one time. I just find that when you’re out of your own environment, sometimes you are a bit healthier because it’s open-minded in a matter sometimes.
Keegan: That’s a really interesting way of looking at it, fantastic perspective. To go back early days. So your childhood and when you were first diagnosed, tell us a bit about how your childhood was.
Peter: Well I was adopted. And my adoptive parents found out that I had CF when I was like a year old, which had usual symptoms as a child being diagnosed. I do actually know who my natural parents are now. I have actually met them and still very much keep in contact with my natural dad now, he’s actually living in Vietnam. I’ve got a lot of family in Melbourne who are from my natural side of my dad and do have lots of contact with them. Growing up with CF, I started dancing the age of four because that was obviously a good exercise tool and I wanted to dance. So that kept me really healthy. I didn’t have a hospital admission. So I was very, very lucky that I just kept healthy the whole time. It’s also, my parents didn’t wrap me in cotton wool. It’s like just get on with it. We just got to do your treatment. It’s part of your life, but you still got to live your life as well. And don’t dwell on what you’ve got …
Keegan: Was dance something that you did as a result of the CF for the exercise, or was it something that you did just because you wanted to do it and it just happened to have that benefit.
Peter: Both. It was actually, I wanted to do it and then let’s put to dance and see if it’s going to help. It’s exercise. Because exercise always encouraged.
Keegan: And so growing up, teen years and moving on in through that. So you said you had your first hospital admission when you were 14.
Peter: As a child. I did struggle with weight gain as well because you are dancing so you’re using a lot of energy and it was thrown out at 14 because I wasn’t developing. That I was very underweight, that if you don’t start putting on weight and eating you can’t diet because you’re heavy… I was having muscle wastage and that’s sort of not good for function. And I didn’t understand. So you sort of develop this like food issue in the end, so had a lot about eating enough food. And a lot of CFs do go through that. Like we are told we got to eat, but sometimes you just can’t eat and you calorie count. And I still calorie count to this day. I’m still very, very conscious about my weight. I’m putting on weight is so hard to do that they’re being told you’ve lost weight. You just want to, Oh, please don’t tell me that. I know I can feel it. So even when I’m in hospital, when they weigh me, it’s actually written in my notes and all the nursing staff know, do not tell him his weight because they’re keep a secret. But I’ve been good this year, I’ve put on like seven kilos this year because I’m taking in same decos.
Keegan: Oh, well congratulations. Well, any positive story to come out of 2020 is even more magnified.
Peter: I hate to, I mean, people really don’t like me saying this. COVID-19 has been my best friend this year. I’ve actually embraced this year has been one of the best years I’ve had for a while.
Keegan: I love that perspective. How come?
Peter: When we got to end of January, I had initially done like 27 days straight working from the Gold Coast to Perth, to Christchurch and back running three national finals. I was exhausted. I had tried to have a tune up in December but all the Bush fires and the smoke didn’t work. So I was really run down. I ended up in hospital at the end of it. I just said, look, I need time off work. How can I do this running my business. Don’t know how we’re going to do that and then Covid hit. So I got to have time off. The job keeper kicks in. Grants kick in. So we were saved by that as a business that I could then take time off. I had to have time off. So now we’re getting back into the run of things again. The pressure’s off that what I had to do this year, I haven’t had to go on tour this year and that’s been a blessing for me, especially for my health, mental and physical health.
Keegan: You seem like you’re a very high achiever and you’re very driven to succeed. Are you one of those people? Would you describe yourself as someone who doesn’t stop unless something forces you to stop and take time, time out?
Peter: I would say I’m a very high achiever and I’m very competitive with myself. I’ve noticed that during now that we’ve sort of come back to sort of work and sort of my normal work schedule, I write lists and those lists last me for the week, but then I have to run a list on the weekend of what I’ve got to do around the house for the weekend otherwise I’d sit and watch TV all weekend. It just drives me insane. I’m just watching CNN all weekend long or Sky News and I can tell you everything. So I’ve just had to make sure that I keep busy, because my mind is so active. It just never stops. And I can’t bring a lot better this year because I’ve got more exercise in too, since we’ve sort of had to stop our normal routine of life.
Keegan: Oh well, that’s fantastic. I mean, it’s great to hear someone put that perspective on something that’s been, you know, pretty objectively, everyone says 2020 has been pretty rough, but that’s beautiful that you can have that, viewpoint on it and slip it. I don’t want to say silver linings, cause it sounds like it’s much more impactful and significant than that. But look at it in a different light I guess.
Peter: I just had to turn into a positive and go, how can I make this work for me? Like we are in lockdown like that period of time and what can I do to take advantage of this? And I was like, right, this is your time to rest. It’s your time to heal? Do it. And I did.
Keegan: Has that been a viewpoint that you’ve had or a philosophy, a strategy that you’ve used throughout your life at any point, particularly with regards to having CF. And obviously that comes with a series of challenges. Have you had times before?
Peter: Yeah, absolutely. If I’m sick in hospital, it’s like, get me out of here. I hate being sick. What can I do to get better? What do I have to do? And that’s always been known by my team that I spent at hospital that he wants to get better he won’t just sit in that room. It’s like, okay, we’ll go to the gym twice a day if we have to. You don’t want to be sick. It just doesn’t work for you. Like do whatever you can to change into a positive and embrace the whole time in hospital. Like the other thing is like, don’t try and get out of the hospital till you’re ready, stay in there till your well. Don’t ever say I hate being a hospital. That’s the wrong approach to have. You need to go to hospital. I love being in hospital because it’s going to make me better. They’re going to make me feel a lot better. I need this medication. I love being in hospital. That’s what you need to turn it into. Don’t say, Hey, that’s not good. It’s not also a bit of an insult to the nursing staff.
Keegan: I don’t know how involved… I know you’ve contributed to raising awareness and supporting CF, particularly in Australia and I presume you’re involved in the community to a degree. Do you have people reach out to you at all, particularly younger people. I mean you’ve achieved so much and you’ve got a fantastically positive perspective. You must be a real role model for people, particularly younger people who are dealing with CF.
Peter: I think I’ve been counseling people since I was 14, motivating them, especially in the same community when we were in hospital, we were allowed to hang around to each other then. So I was always, come on, you can do this, come to the gym, turning everything to a positive. I’ve been fortunate enough that my dance competition there’s been a lot of CF kids who’ve been coming to the competition and their parents have either not known it by the time they get there, they read my bio in the program or known before and it’s been, they’re like, Oh my God, you’ve got to speak to my child. And the most interesting thing once when a child came up to me and had CF and talking to them and they don’t believe you’ve got CF because it’s like who is this person I have seen. I pulled a bottle of a thing of the thing of Creon out of my pocket. And I said to the child, do you take your Creon and show them the crown, that child was blown away. It was like, mum, he is the same as me. And I see, you’ve got to take these every time you eat. I said, I can’t eat unless I take them. And she said to me, and I didn’t even know where I was, you know, just say the normal things to them. And she said, thank you for saying that because it’s so hard to get her, to take her Creon on when we’re out and by you showing that shows that someone who’s up on that stage, presenting awards and running a dance competition still has to take their Creon. And that that’s something I thought, okay, well that’s my duty of care. Like my role in the community of having CF. And if I get on emails or calls from someone, you know, can you talk to these parents? I will always do it. It’s called peer support.
Keegan: I also wouldn’t say like, it’s not a duty or not a responsibility like that. It’s on you because it’s something to deal with. There’s so many challenges that would come with it to deal with anyway. So I wouldn’t undersell the facts that it’s actually that it’s something that you’ve gone above and beyond to do, and to be that role model and allow people to sort of be inspired by you and to support people, as you say, from early days in the community since your first hospital admission. I think it’s quite a fantastic thing. Sorry. That isn’t a question. It was just a statement. Early days, when you were a teenager in your twenties in the dancing community, did the CF thing come up at all? Did you have to explain it to people? Were there any sort of adversities there?
Peter: It was hard to get jobs in the dance industry because I was sort of known out there. He has CF, he could get sick on a contract and break it and we’d have to send him home. So that was always put upon me. It’s like, well, you’re not going to get a job with this company. They know you’ve got CF. I do remember going once for a musical and on the casting list, I happen to see it and then everyone’s name was on it. And next to it had has cystic fibrosis I’m like, well, who in the hell told them that? And why is that written on there? Which I thought was pretty slack. Like I was just wiped out in the very beginning of it. So I had no chance.
Keegan: I know I get the feeling that awareness particularly in Australia of cystic fibrosis, I’d say even over the past 10 or 20 years, I seems to have become a lot more general and widespread people are now sort of more aware of it. I don’t know. Your perception might be completely different as someone with who was much closer to it. Do you feel like things have changed in terms of understanding or …
Peter: Absolutely. It is more talked about it is more known. People know what the symptoms are. Especially when I do say I’ve got it they go, oh really and then they know someone who’s had it or they’ve known someone in their family. So there’s always a connection and definitely when you see just more things in the news about it, and that’s obviously where the awareness and all the hard work we’ve done and not being afraid to be known, to have CF like a few weeks ago, I was watching ABC news and Norman Swan came on the TV and he said, I feel sorry for people with cystic fibrosis because they’re out in the community. They cough now people think they got COVID-19. So that was pretty good that he narrowed in on our condition, stood up for us.
Keegan: And different for you, was there more explanation for you when you were younger and in the earlier years with people, other people are having to sort of tell them and educate them about what it was and what particularly in a professional sense, doing dance.
Peter: Well, first of all, you know, it’s not contagious. And we can go onto the other issue when I was in my twenties where people thought I had AIDS.
Keegan: That’s a whole other can of worms. And I don’t know if you want to talk about that or if you’re comfortable talking about or not, but that was… So what was that kind of like, that would have been another, a whole other challenge altogether, not just from CF.
Peter: When I was in my twenties, obviously someone with CF we do have a bit of a weight issue. As I mentioned before, and back then we had the AIDS crisis in Australia or worldwide. I had a lot of people say to me, do you have AIDS and trying to explain to them, no, I don’t. I have cystic fibrosis. And they’re like, yeah, sure. That’s probably the only time I’ve felt really like damaged or affected because I’d grown up in a bubble and then obviously this pandemic happened in the world and being gay and living in the community, then you sort of get labeled as, oh, he’s got it too. So I did have to fight that issue. I didn’t even have it. I was like I had CF. So that did cause me sort of grief and heartache actually going into a relationship. You’ve got to tell someone. So I just I’ve gone into relationship. I’ve always been told and taught by professionals, tell them straight away, don’t hold back. Don’t ever hold back, try and get that out. As soon as you can, that doesn’t go into the relationship too bad. You’ve just educated one extra person and I’ve never ever had an issue with that.
Keegan: Do you think today it’s things have changed? Do you think it would be easier particularly for a young gay person who has cystic fibrosis? I know everyone’s got a different set of circumstances, but generally do you think, had you been going through that right now it would be a different, different world.
Peter: There’s more network now there’s more support. It’s more general in the community and it’s … this is what you need to know and this is what we’re discovering now is that someone with CF needs to get their sexual health check done. I don’t care who you are, get it done as part of your annual review, because you could have an ongoing… I’ve heard this story, you have an ongoing chest infection, but you’ve actually got something else going on in the background that hasn’t been picked up because they haven’t thought of it because it’s not part of the regime of annual tune-ups or checkups. Just get it done because you don’t want to have a problem. And just, there’s plenty of people you can talk to. It’s so mainstream now, it’s just so normal to have that talked about. And that’s something that we need to get over. We are now living in an era that, you know, there is infectious diseases out there and it’s not a shameful how you would actually contract them. It’s just how it happens. It’s what it is. And don’t be afraid to come out because there’s plenty of support out there and be proud of who you are and be proud of having CF.
Keegan: And that support and that network and those resources you talking about you yourself are no small part of that, the fact that you’re out. The fact that you’re on this podcast and we’re talking about it and you’re acting as an absolute role model for people like that really is amazing. So thank you very much. I will say before we go, 2020 I know for a lot of people, obviously not you, because you look at the positives of everything. For a lot of people out there, particularly people who have CF either people with CF or families or carers, what’s the Peter Oxford spin. What last words, what parting messages would you have for everyone? Just as a little bit of positivity and an outlook.
Peter: We’re going to get through this. It’s just a time in our life and a time in history, we will get through this. We’ve got a great government. We’ve got a great health system and just believe in yourself, believe in the government, educate yourself. If you start getting worried about something just means you don’t know the answers. So educate yourself. That’s what I’ve done the whole time and keep your support network going around. You don’t ever feel lonely because if you are lonely, just read a book, like actually embrace that period of time. There’s a lot of people who are lonely at the moment. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Because that’s when it can just fall apart.
Keegan: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your time. It’s been absolutely amazing talking to you. So really appreciate you taking the time and everything that you continue to do as a role model in the CF community.
Peter: Thank you.
Keegan: Thanks for listening to this episode of the CF strong podcast, make sure you subscribe on Apple podcasts or your favorite podcast app. If you enjoy this podcast, we’d really appreciate if you could leave us a review on Apple podcasts to help other people find it or share us with your friends. Also, we should take a moment to remind you the views expressed in CF strong podcasts may not be reflective of cystic fibrosis community cares viewpoints. The podcast is designed to share information and provide insight into the lives of those living with cystic fibrosis around Australia. This podcast was made possible with support from the Australian government and was produced by CF community care and CF Western Australia. Thanks for listening. And we’ll talk to you next time.
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