How Dancers are killing Cancer

Inside each of us lies the possibility of a silent killer – one that could pounce at any moment. Sometimes we see it coming, but more often we don’t. At 48, Sharon Humphrey was the picture of health. Fit and energetic, the modern-dance teacher inspired her pupils to celebrate life through dance.

She was a fixture in their lives; many of them had known Sharon since they were toddlers learning their first stumbling steps in a dance routine. What the girls and Sharon’s best friend Angela Ferguson didn’t realise is just what a fighter Sharon would have to be. In October 2006, Sharon gave a particularly strenuous class, outperforming her teenage students, who were limp and sweaty by the end of it. Angela went over to congratulate her.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, as Sharon had been complaining of back pain for a few days. “I’m okay – 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.”

At 10 the next morning the two women received terrible news. Sharon was diagnosed with stage-three cervical cancer – the cancer that kills the most people in South Africa. Her kidneys were being crushed by an enormous tumour. She was in renal failure. She fought hard, but her athletic body dropped to a mere 39kg. One year later, on Christmas day in 2007, Sharon lost her battle, dying at home, surrounded by family and friends. During that year, Sharon had organised a dance production to raise funds for research into cervical cancer.

While she was fighting for her life, fantastic news had hit the medical world: a vaccine had been invented that could prevent up to 40 different types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) which causes cervical cancer. Angela used the pain of watching her best friend die to motivate her to do what she could to prevent others from going through the same pain. “Sharon had gone through so much. It just seemed a sin not to go on and do as much as possible, given that this type of cancer can largely be prevented,” she said.

“We are all connected to women in so many different ways. Each of us has a mother, a grandmother, a sister-in-law, a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, a wife, a friend …” Angela is a classic beauty, her blonde hair framing a kind face. A finance officer at Investec in the mornings, she teaches Sharon’s students in the afternoons at the Happy Feet Dance Academy. In her spare time, she devotes herself to saving lives.

The cervical cancer vaccine is best given to girls between ages of nine and 14, and three injections have to be given over a three-month period. Currently, only private patients can afford the injection. At over R500 each, they are just too costly for the government to roll out to everyone. Angela founded an organisation in Sharon’s memory: Dance for a Cure.

Based on the Royal Variety Concert in the UK, Angela brought the entire dance community together last year to put on a show that featured all types of dance. The event took place at the State Theatre in Pretoria. Nine hundred people attended and R120 000 was raised for young girls to have the vaccine. “It’s a great way of uniting the dance community for a good cause,” said Angela. A year later she is starting to see the fruits of her efforts.

“Is it going to hurt,” a girl of 11 asks. Her eyes are big and startled. She turns to her friends, who shudder at the thought of the injection that will soon pierce their arms too. The 40 girls from the Abraham Kriel orphanage in Langlaagte bravely wait their turn to be vaccinated. Volunteer nurses from various Netcare hospitals know how to deal with them. They hug, smile, reassure then plunge the needle in. It takes all of two seconds and it’s over. These girls have been saved from the possibility of ever getting cervical cancer.

Sarah Jackson, a gynaecologist from Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital explains why they are here. In her practice she sees people with cervical cancer every day. “Usually it’s too late and they die from it,” she said “We see about 750 new cases a year at this hospital alone. About 2 600 women die every year from this cancer.” Her youngest patient was 23.

Death isn’t something a group of girls thinks hard about, although the information is fascinating to them. It’s more about the challenge of seeing who can handle the pain of the prick most bravely. But the women in the room know more.

Angela’s face shines. Her hard work may have saved some of these girls’ lives. She will be back twice more to oversee the next two injections. She is frantically preparing for this year’s production, which will take place on August 22 at the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City. “I just want to fill as many seats as possible and would love some corporates to get involved,” Angela said.

The four- and six-year-olds Angela now teaches can’t wait. They are going to be the “posh cats”, with whiskers painted on their faces and a big pink bow on their heads. “This is a professional show, but I wanted some of Sharon’s pupils to be involved,” she said. “They will be on for just two minutes and I hope they will win over the audience with the cute factor.”

Back in the rehearsal studio, Angela cries, “knees together, toes kissing… good girls,” as they practise their steps. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 – arms down like the Germans. Girls, you don’t look like posh cats to me. You look like confused children. Try again. Off you go, my kittens.” Last year, all Sharon’s ex-pupils took part in Dance for a Cure. The littlies sat in front, while the older girls did more professional choreography at the back. “I remember Sharon as energetic, passionate, fit and strong,” said Nicola Meltzer, 26. “We danced with her throughout our school careers.”

Sam Crosson was just 18 months old when she joined the classes. “I still remember Sam in a nappy in the first production I did. I was about 10 and I was a skeleton,” Meltzer recalls. “It was a shock when we heard about Sharon and the cancer, she seemed so healthy,” said Aimee Serafini.

“She refused to believe she was sick; she thought it was just flu.” The girls say Dance for a Cure is something they know Sharon would have wanted. “It’s the perfect tribute to her. She loved dancing. Her life was about dancing,” said Meltzer. Last year’s production was very special for them. At the end, a picture of Sharon was revealed in her memory.“

I suppose life goes on, but that production made me remember Sharon in a special way,” said Ashley Taylor, 15. “When that picture came down everyone cried.” The girls say that if there is a message they want people to get from Sharon’s life, it is that if you suspect something is wrong, go to a doctor and “dance, dance all you can and support the cause”.

Sharon’s legacy will live on for as long as Angela is there to carry her passion forward. Perhaps Sharon sensed this in her final days. At the launch of the cervical cancer vaccine in SA in 2007, Sharon quoted a premonitionary line from the movie Shawshank Redemption. “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things; and no good thing ever dies.”

Dance for a Cure tickets are available at Computicket.