Dance of Life

UPDATED 05/29/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/29/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

Two decades ago, Sherry Lebed Davis watched in anguish as her mother recovered from a mastectomy. A onetime professional ballroom dancer, Rita Lebed was unable to perform the simplest tasks. "She couldn't even hook her bra," recalls the Philadelphia-bred Davis, 54, herself an ex-dancer. Resolving to help, she and her brothers Marc and Joel, both surgeons, devised an exercise program of stretching and jazz and ballet movements that restored Rita's strength and flexibility. "And," adds Davis, "she came out of a sea of depression."

Rita lived on for 15 years, dying of pancreatic cancer at 73 in 1994. Within two years her daughter, now living in Lynnwood, Wash., was struck with more bad news: She too had breast cancer. Struggling with psychic and physical pain after a lumpectomy, Davis decided to dust off the regimen she'd designed for her mother. "It made me feel so good," she says. "I had to tell every breast cancer survivor I could."

And so she has. Naming the program Focus on Healing, Davis promotes it with a brochure and an exercise video and has so far seen it adopted in some 20 hospitals across the U.S. and Canada. Health professionals say FOH helps patients regain their balance, which breast surgery can affect, as well as improve circulation and ease postoperative swelling and soreness. The program also addresses the emotional issues women face after breast surgery. "Your surgeon says goodbye, your oncologist says goodbye, your radiologist says goodbye," explains Davis. "You have sexuality problems, depression."

"I was devastated by the surgery; I just wanted to shrink into myself," says Seattle bus driver Judi Fisher, 52, who had a mastectomy last May. "Focus on Healing was a way to regain my physical balance so I could get back my emotional balance." Most FOH classes are taught by health care professionals or social workers trained by Davis. "Breast cancer is such a personal subject," says Kim Schaaf, 39, breast-health educator at Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Kirk-land, Wash. "Since Sherry has been through it, it adds an important element to the program." Aside from her familiarity with breast cancer, Davis's dance history has done much to shape FOH's special character. As her brother Marc notes, the therapy "isn't based on a disease but on beauty and motion."

Davis was encouraged to pursue dance by both her mother and her late father, Jack, a Philadelphia housing inspector. She briefly apprenticed with George Balanchine ("He said I was never going to be built for the ballet world") and went on to perform Off-Broadway and in several modern-dance companies. In 1967 she married jeweler Morty Gloss, with whom she had two sons, Adam, now 31, and Randy, 29. The marriage ended in 1974, and Gloss died in a car accident five years later.

"When my ex-husband died, I had nothing," says Davis. With her mother's help, she opened three dance studios. Burned out by the demands of the business, she took a marketing job for a firm that transferred her to Seattle in 1990. There she met record-company manager Jeff Davis, now 48. "Jeff tried to pick me up on the beach," she says. "I didn't want to be bothered." But her son Randy pestered her to give it a chance. "Randy said Jeff was one of the neatest guys he had ever met," she says. "He was right." They wed in 1994.

This month, Davis led an international FOH certification conference in Seattle. "More women are surviving breast cancer today," she says. "After the surgery and the treatments they still need something that makes them feel good and brings them together with other survivors. It's my passion."

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