In the fall of 2001, Joy Clausen was 25 years old and about to fulfill a dream. Again.
After spending two glorious years as a SeaWorld San Diego dolphin trainer, Clausen left her dream job to attend film school in Santa Barbara, where she set out to pursue her dream career as a filmmaker. But during her Thanksgiving break, she noticed a lump on her neck. The lump turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that starts in the lymphatic system and can form tumors throughout the body.
What followed was no one’s idea of a dream scenario.
There was chemotherapy and all the side effects that came with it. There was the exciting moment when her doctor told her she was cancer free, followed by many months of feeling derailed and depressed. There was the impulsive move to Hawaii, where she lived in a tiny apartment in Waikiki and was sleepwalking through a relationship that wasn’t working.
“I survived CANCER for this?” she wondered as she dragged a tray of Mai Tais through a tourist restaurant.
The answer to that question turned out to be a big, complete NO.
The curveball that threw life in her path turned out to be a game changer. You can read all about it in the debut book by the now happily married Joy Clausen Soto. It’s called “Joy: The Story of a Dolphin Trainer, Filmmaker, and Cancer Survivor,” and the title says it all.
“My daughter recently asked me what difficult things in my life I was most grateful for, and I said, ‘Cancer,'” Soto said. “Sometimes I think if I hadn’t had cancer, I might have had a great career in Hollywood. But I also think that cancer has really shaped my life and put me in a position to give people hope. I can show them that nothing can stop you and that there is nothing you can’t overcome.”
Born in Hawaii and raised in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Soto came to San Diego in 1999 hoping to join SeaWorld as a dolphin trainer. As she relates in the book, Soto had her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Chaminade University of Honolulu and was working on her master’s degree in social science at the University of Chicago, so she felt pretty confident in her academic credentials.
But there was also the not insignificant issue of the swim test, which she didn’t feel good about at all. Soto spent her entire flight from Chicago practicing holding her breath and visualizing passing the test, which included a 26-foot plunge to the bottom of the pool. It worked. A few days after flying back to Chicago, Soto was offered the job as an associate trainer with the Dolphin Interaction Program.
“The people at SeaWorld were all just the best people you could ever work for or work with, and dolphins are just magical animals,” Soto said from the Rolando home she shares with her husband, Alex, and their two children. “To grow up and be able to work with them and spend most of the day with them was pretty incredible.”
Soto stayed with SeaWorld for two years, before her short-lived pre-cancer stint at film school. But the experience of being in the water with her favorite dolphins, Bullet and Buster, and her fellow trainers had a ripple effect that touched every aspect of Soto’s life.
And then it went on.
After her unfortunate time in Hawaii, Soto was able to return to SeaWorld and the healing waters of the Dolphin Interaction Program. She met her future husband at SeaWorld. When she started trying to understand her cancer journey, it was a SeaWorld colleague who told Soto she had the makings of a book.
And when Soto found out that the shy girl who shared her room during Soto’s cancer treatments at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles had passed away, it was the dolphins that inspired one of the most rewarding chapters of her life.
When Soto and 5-year-old Bailey were roommates, Soto promised that one day she would introduce her to a dolphin. That day didn’t come for Bailey, but Soto was determined to keep her promise the only way she knew how. She presented the idea of a dolphin encounter for children with cancer to her SeaWorld bosses, and they loved it as much as she did.
Since 2008, SeaWorld has hosted regular dolphin encounters for children from Rady Children Hospital and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. The dream Soto had for Bailey lives on in the SeaWorld dolphin pool.
“You see so much joy. Not only with the children, but also with the parents. For a moment they all forget their problems, and they are very happy,” said Wendy Remirez, SeaWorld San Diego zoological curator. “It brings luck, and everyone could use a little more luck.”
Soto’s dream for Bailey also lives on in the pages of Soto’s honest and grateful book. So are her prodigious times with Bullet and Buster. Her terrifying battle with cancer is told in great detail. We hear about the video diary that became the basis for her award-winning documentary Just One Year. She shares her wrong moves and her hard-won triumphs. We get the tears. Love. The lessons.
“I think we all want to feel like we have a purpose in life, and this feels like the purpose I have,” says Soto, who now gives speaking engagements and is considering writing a book on parenting. “For me it was visualization, gratitude and perseverance that got me through it all. I want this book to help people get through their tough times and give back.”