Two women, partners in teaching dance, turn a human tragedy into a passion for prevention.
When young dancers glowing with health and vitality battle to finish a modern dance class, you know it's been a really strenuous one. One day in October 2006, Sharon Humphrey out-danced her students, who were limp and sweaty by the end of an open class. Sharon's teaching partner, Angela Ferguson, went over to congratulate her on doing so well.
"How're you feeling?" she asked as Sharon had been complaining of back pain for a few days.
"I'm OK – but my back is killing me!"
"You need to see a doctor, don't you think?"
"Yes, I know, I've got an appointment tomorrow."
The next day, Angela received a call from the hospital at ten in the morning. Sharon had been diagnosed with Stage Three cervical cancer. Her kidneys were being crushed by the enormous tumour and they were under tremendous strain – she was in renal failure.
Sharon was about to begin a battle for her life. And that battle would inspire a campaign to save other women from a killer disease, using dance, the art that was so close to Sharon's heart, to move and inspire, to challenge and inform.
The diagnosis came as a tremendous shock, not least because Sharon had had a Pap smear less than two years before, which had come back perfectly normal. Most of us would happily rely on this test to screen for cervical cancer, as we've always done, but it seems that the Pap smear is less likely to detect the presence of a more aggressive type of cervical cancer, known as adenocarcinoma.
This kind of cancer often occurs higher up in the cervix, where the Pap smear brush used to sample cells can't easily reach.
Fighting for life
"I've often thought back to that class, the day before Sharon was diagnosed, and marvelled to think what pain she must have been in," says Angela today. "What a fighter she was! Her whole attitude was tremendously positive – she never asked 'Why me?', she just focused on what needed to be done and how to get through it."
"What needed to be done" was huge, the medical equivalent of climbing Mt Everest. Sharon's tumour was so big that it was inoperable. However, before her doctors could even begin treating the tumour they had to get her kidneys functioning in order to give her body a chance to withstand the treatment that was to come. This resulted in two operations which were undertaken to assist her kidneys to function. This was followed by seven weeks of aggressive radiation. The 48-year-old dancer's toned, fit body wasted away to 39 kilos.
"Sharon's treatments were complete in January 2007. By the end of March, she'd organised and staged a dance production to raise funds for research into cervical cancer," says Angela. The production raised R20,000. "Sharon wanted to use this opportunity not just to raise funds, but to also thank everyone who’d helped her get through the treatment. She just radiated a sense of hope and beauty and strength."
Sharon went back to her normal life, although she did scale back her activities, for example her involvement with the SA Dance Teachers Association. But the battle was far from over.
"I remember, on her birthday on 1st August, she said she just couldn't stop shivering. She went to the doctor, who discovered she'd developed a massive infection. She went into hospital and essentially, she never came out. She got a multiple drug-resistant infection in hospital, and spent time in isolation. She developed pneumonia, the cancer spread to her bowel and the suffering was just endless."
One day when Angela went in as always to see her friend, she found her in fighting mode. "I've just given myself a good lecture," Sharon told Angela. "I told myself, this is not the end of the world, just pull yourself together!"
But it was the end of Sharon's world. In December, her daughter came home from overseas, and the medics sent Sharon home on the 22nd to spend Christmas with her family. On Christmas Day, the battle ended.
Dancing for a cure
Angela was there for Sharon almost every day of the long drawn-out fight, along with Cindy and Jane, the other two remarkable ladies who together supported and cared for Sharon throughout her illness. Sharon thought of the three of them as her angels.
The experience touched her deeply and filled her with a powerful desire to prevent other women from going through such suffering. She picked up the baton and marched on. "My thinking was, Sharon had gone through so much, it just seemed like a sin not to go on and do as much as possible, given that this type of cancer can largely be prevented. We are all connected to women in so many different ways. Each of us have a mother, a grandmother, a sister-in-law, a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, a wife or a friend. Each and every one of us is at risk so we all have the right to know and the duty to make it known!"
In the last months of Sharon's life, news had broken that science had found a real weapon in the battle against cervical cancer, a vaccine that would significantly reduce the risk. Sharon spoke at the launch of the vaccine, an inspiring speech which closed with these typically positive words: "I would like to end by quoting from the powerful movie 'Shawshank Redemption'; the letter from Andy to Red says: 'Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.'"
Angela was invigorated by the idea that the funds she raised could be used to make a huge, here-and-now impact on the lives of South African girls. The organisation she had founded in Sharon’s name, Revelation – Dance for a Cure, staged another dance production – at the State Theatre in Pretoria, no less! "It was huge and oh, so daunting," says Angela. "We secured the most unbelievable acts to perform. I was far more worried about filling the theatre. But in the end, we had about 900 people there, and we raised R120,000."
Dance, Angela believes, is a powerful vehicle, not just for raising money, but also to get the message across. Her feeling is that bringing the sensory element of sight into the message touches deeper and remains longer.
What is the message? It's two-pronged. The first part of the message is to go for regular screening, and not ignore your body's signals. "Sharon had had back pain for some time," Angela explains. "I can't help wondering now: what if she'd been diagnosed sooner?"
The second is to raise awareness of this new and exciting development in the prevention of cervical cancer. HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, is a major trigger for cervical cancer. The variants HPV 16 and 18 "contribute to over 70% of all cervical cancer cases, between 41 and 67% of high-grade cervical lesions and 16-32% of low-grade cervical lesions." The vaccine for this virus, which was launched in 2007, is a Nobel Prize winning healthcare invention.
"If young girls are vaccinated, it will reduce their risk of cervical cancer really dramatically," says Angela. "That is what we plan with the funds we've raised. Each girl needs three vaccinations, so we can afford to vaccinate quite a number of girls. We obviously need to choose girls whom we can follow up with over a period of time, so we've assessed a number of possible situations, and we believe we've found the answer in a home for orphaned girls." - (Health24, August 2009)
Source: Martina Nicholson Associates on behalf of Revelation - Dance for a Cure
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