Sherry Lebed Davis makes a difference for breast cancer survivors
By Sally E. Smith
Sherry Lebed Davis uses one word to describe her reaction to her 1996 diagnosis of breast cancer: shock. Although she had a strong history of breast cancer in her family (her mom, grandmother and two aunts had the disease), Davis, now 54, says, "By the time I was in my 40s, I figured it was going to miss me. I'm the only cousin who has gotten breast cancer and I'm not the oldest. I was shocked."
Her recovery from a lumpectomy brought even more surprises. "I was shocked at the pain, at the loss of range of motion and at the lack of information (about recovery) I got," remembers Davis, who lives in Lynnwood, Wash. So she turned to the tool that she and her two surgeon brothers, Marc and Joel, had developed for their mother back in the late '70s: a combination of dance and physical therapy that they called "The Lebed Method." Davis, a former professional dancer and dance studio owner, found that "It made such a difference, not only in my physical recovery, but in my mental recovery as well. That's when it became my passion to get my voice out there to every breast cancer survivor, (to let them know) about this program and what it can do."
And passionate she is. Davis talks about the "sisterhood" of breast cancer survivors and sees her work as filling an important gap - the gap between the end of treatment and full physical and emotional recovery. "Your surgeon says goodbye, your oncologist says goodbye, and you're out there in limbo," she asserts.
Davis quotes the statistic that "ten years after cancer, 65% of women are still depressed." Contributing to depression, she says, are the physical problems that arise after surgery which negatively impact a woman's ability to do everyday activities such as lift her child, reach up into a cupboard and work in the garden.
Women who have had breast surgery are subject to back, neck and balance problems because, says Davis, "Even with a lumpectomy, your weight is different on each side. You're dealing with a heavier side and a lighter side." In addition, the scar tissue that is created by the surgery contracts, leading to a loss of range of motion. Plus, women who have had lymph nodes removed are at high risk for getting lymphedema, a condition that causes severe swelling and which can lead to infection.
But the vast majority of physical and emotional problems that follow breast surgery are avoidable, says Davis, by stretching and moving. "Women aren't told (by their doctors) to keep moving, to do the exercises they need to do for the rest of their lives."
Such is the stage set for Davis' program, "Focus on Healing through Movement and Dance," an updated version of the exercises she and her brothers developed when their mother, Rita, was recuperating from surgery. "She was in the hospital for ten days, and they had her arm strapped to her body, so that by the time she came home, she couldn't hook her bra, she couldn't brush her hair and she was very depressed," Davis remembers.
When Davis' mom, after using the program, made a remarkable recovery, her doctor was so impressed that he invited Davis to develop the Focus on Health program for the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, where she was living at the time. Today, 20 hospitals in the U.S. utilize her unique combination of stretching exercises and jazz and ballet movements to help restore patients' flexibility and range of motion. Davis also has a certification program, through which she has trained 45 teachers, who have then brought the program to fitness centers, homes and dance studios. And for women who don't have access to a local program, Davis has developed a videotape of the same name, which features five women of all sizes and ages doing the complete routine.
While Davis teaches the physical movements that exercise the upper body, stretch the muscles, move the joints and increase circulation, she does so within the framework of music and dance, which helps with the emotional recovery of breast cancer survivors. Dance, which has always been associated with beauty, grace, a celebration of life and sensuality, seems to touch the souls of these women. In the tape, Davis advises that "Taking back control of your recovery can be very empowering at a time when you feel your life may be out of control."
Davis had recently married Jeff when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and says that "My husband was and is the rock. I have two grown sons who were just incredible. And my brothers being surgeons gave me another avenue to ask questions that I was hesitant to ask my doctors. Unfortunately, there are too many women out there who don't have that kind of support."
But now, those women have Davis.
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