At 23 years old, Alan Bersten never imagined he would be faced with a life changing diagnosis.
The pro dancer was on tour with Dancing with the Stars: Live! three weeks ago when he started experiencing sharp stomach pains that would last for about a minute and then disappear. After getting tests done at an Urgent Care, Bersten found out his blood had a high level of calcium.
“At first [the doctors] were like, ‘Oh, it’s probably not a big deal. You’re probably just taking some supplements,’” Bersten tells PEOPLE exclusively. “I went back on the road the next day, and my stomach stopped hurting.”
Though he says he felt “fine,” Bersten’s mother pushed him to go back to the doctor to get another blood test. A week later, he got the results and found that it was not supplements causing this but rather a tumor on one of his parathyroid glands.
There are four of these very small glands located on the thyroid gland in the neck that produce parathyroid hormone (PTH), which helps control the amount of calcium in the blood. A tumor, like Bersten’s, causes the affected gland to release more PTH than it should and disrupts the balance of calcium in the blood. It’s still unknown how people develop the disorder, but it’s typically most common in older women.
Bersten was told that to treat this potentially fatal condition — called hyperparathyroidism — an endocrinologist would have to remove the tumor and check if it was malignant (cancerous) or benign (non cancerous).
“Just the word tumor is so frightening,” he says. “I didn’t know what malignant or benign meant until I looked it up and I was like, ‘Well hopefully it’s benign — God forbid I have cancer.’ That is more stress than I could ever imagine. I think the scariest part was not knowing.”
The day after getting his diagnosis, Bersten flew back to his hometown of Minnesota to visit an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic.
“They did a quick scan of everything and couldn’t tell if [the tumor] was benign or malignant until they opened me up,” he says. “Unfortunately the only surgery available was on April 11 so my mom quickly was like, ‘You don’t understand, he has to be on Dancing with the Stars. Is there anything we can do?’”
After speaking with the scheduling office and explaining that he had to be on Good Morning America on April 13 for the cast reveal of DWTS‘ upcoming all-athletes season, they were able to squeeze Bersten in for surgery the next day.
“If they didn’t have a surgeon available, I would have had to wait for this season to finish and then do it,” he says. “I would be so in my head about it, I would be scared. So I got very lucky that they had time and that I was able to recover in time for the season.”
On the morning of the surgery, Bersten had to wake up at 8 a.m. to do four hours of nuclear testing. After finding the tumor in his left parathyroid gland, he went straight in to have the two hour procedure done to remove it.
“That type of surgery usually is very short but they had to make sure that it wasn’t cancerous,” he says. “I woke up like 2 hours later like, ‘Where am I?’ I’ve never had anesthesia before.”
“It’s the funniest thing though,” he continues. “I was so nervous to go under and I remember counting down like, ’10, 9…’ and the surgeon goes, ‘You better get me tickets to the show after this.’ And that’s the last thing I heard. I woke up and I was like, ‘Did you really say that?’ It was so funny.”
Luckily, the tumor was benign and doctors told Bersten that it’s extremely rare for this to occur again. As for his recovery, he only had to spend a week at home resting.
“They said it was a miracle that the doctors found it because most people don’t understand they have it until they break a bone or they get kidney stones,” he says. “It was like all of my stars up there in Heaven watching over me.”
If left untreated, Bersten says his memory could have been affected and that he would have experienced fatigue and muscle aches. After his week of recovery, Bersten flew back to LA and started to ease into his busy DWTS schedule as much as he could.
“I met my partner Mirai [Nagasu], and it was like a new life,” he says. “I’m so lucky that everything went so well for me, and I got a partner like Mirai.”
Now, Bersten has a one-inch scar that he wears proudly in the middle of his neck — but it wasn’t always this way.
“Being on the show and in LA everything is about your body,” he says. “I wore turtlenecks for the first two weeks [of recovery] everyday. I don’t know if they’re going to show it but when I met Mirai, it was 90 degrees in LA and I wore a turtleneck. I was just so self-conscious about it. Mirai makes fun of me because while we’re rehearsing I keep looking in the mirror just to make sure everything is okay.”
Bersten says his view of his scar shifted once he realized that it represented an important milestone in his life.
“I see the scar now and I’m like, ‘You know what? It’s kind of cool,’” he says. “I survived it.”
After everything he’s been through, Bersten is hoping to encourage others to make their annual physicals.
“I’m getting my yearly checkups — I hadn’t been for 4 or 5 years, and I definitely learned a lesson from that,” he says. “It didn’t even seem like I was careless, I just never thought about going to the doctor because I was always so young and so active. It’s so important to monitor your body because the slightest thing can change your life forever.”
He adds: “It sounds cliché but it’s so important to live life to the fullest.”