Cervical Cancer

If dance is a celebration of life, Sharon Humphrey was dance personified.

At 48, she was a super-fit and healthy mother of two, the owner of a successful dance studio, and a sought-after and inspirational modern dance teacher who frequently out-danced her teenage stu-dents. In her own words, she had “enormous energy”.

But in October 2006, she woke up and discovered that the niggling back pain that she had been experiencing over the past couple of weeks had become worse. She was tired. She felt flat. Strangely, her skin took on a slightly yellow tone.

She made an appointment with her doctor, thinking she was just run down and asked for a ‘tonic’ - something to pep her up and make her feel like herself again.

Her doctor wasn’t convinced, and sent her for sonar. An hour later she was sitting in her gynae’s office, hearing the diagnosis of the disease that would eventually take her life - she had stage 3 cervical cancer, with a tumour so large that it had compressed her kidneys, putting her into renal failure.

Sharon had been for her regular Pap smear just 18 months prior to diagnosis. The test didn’t pick up anything abnormal.

At the time of Sharon’s diagnosis, Pap smears were the first line of defence against cervical can-cer, picking up any abnormalities in the cervix which might point to the presence of cancerous cells or, if it is caught early enough, pre-cancerous lesions which can be treated.

Tragically, Sharon’s tumour was so far advanced that her team of doctors gave her very little chance of survival.

But Sharon was determined, and so began the fight for her life.

Repairing the damage to her kidneys was first priority but sadly the first operation to insert the nec-essary stents to open her urethras failed. Fortunately, the second operation - a double nephros-tomy - successfully restored the use of one kidney.

With one working kidney, the focus turned to the tumour. Radiation was the only option and Sha-ron embarked on an aggressive seven-week course, with a gruelling 34 sessions.

In her words, “The side effects were showed no mercy - exhaustion, vomiting, cramping, diarrhoea and third degree burns attacked my already weak body.”

By the end of the course, she had undergone four blood transfusions and weighed a mere 39kgs, having lost 25% of her body weight.

Miraculously, the PET scan showed that the treatment had managed to contain the tumour to the cervix - the cancer wasn’t in remission, but neither was it advancing.

With renewed hope, Sharon decided to join the fight against this terrible disease. By incredible co-incidence, the international medical world was buzzing with excitement over the launch of a vac-cine that could protect against the two most prevalent strains of human papillomavirus or HPV, which had recently been proven to cause almost 100% of cervical cancers.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be able to help Sharon. But, if made available in South Africa, it could prevent thousands of girls and women from suffering and dying from what had now become a largely preventable disease.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be able to help Sharon. But, if made available in South Africa, it could prevent thousands of girls and women from suffering and dying from what had now become a largely preventable disease.

In March 2007, the Wits Theatre played host to the first Dance for a Cure show, entitled “Revela-tions”. This first show raised R25 000, which was donated to cancer research.

She then threw herself behind the vaccine launch, joining a nationwide roadshow that had her sharing her story with thousands of girls and women, educating them about the potential dangers of cervical cancer, encouraging them to get vaccinated, and reminding them of the importance of their annual Pap smears.

Tragically, the roadshow took its toll on Sharon’s already weak body, and by October 2007, the in-cessant exhaustion returned and a PET scan showed that the tumour had returned to its aggres-sive growth path. She died on Christmas day.

“In her roadshow speech, Sharon used to proclaim that she was a miracle. To me, she will always be a miracle - not only for her family and friends, but crucially, for the thousands of girls and women whose lives she has saved, even though they will never know it, by making it possible for them to be vaccinated,” says Angela.

The first Dance for a Cure after Sharon’s tragic death raised a massive R120 000, which Angela decided to donate to a vaccination programme. The funds vaccinated 50 girls with the full required three courses. Since then, Dance for a Cure has raised enough money to vaccinate 1 350 girls across South Africa.

To this day, Angela remains a crusader for the HPV vaccine, tirelessly organising Dance for a Cure in memory of Sharon every year, raising awareness of cervical cancer, and the vaccine that has the power to prevent it.