Cancer survivors find physical healing in doing the tango

Winning the battle against cancer is enough to make anyone feel like dancing, but a new study shows there may be some therapeutic benefits to it as well. In fact, in an effort to help patients get back on their feet, some experts are teaching them to tango.

Tim Hickey, for example, never considered himself much of a dancer, but after spending a few weeks in a program for cancer patients he's surprised even himself. Today Tim's doing the tango, but not long ago he could barely walk.

"The only thing I could feel in my feet was the balls. I couldn't feel the toes; couldn't feel the heels," he remembers.

That's not uncommon. Tim had Hodgkin's lymphoma, and the chemotherapy used to wipe out his cancer also damaged nerves in his legs and feet.

"When you lose sensation or activity in those nerves, it can affect the feedback that your system gets, so that your system isn't able to control its balance quite as well," says Lisa Worthen-Chaudhari, MFA, OSU Wexner Medical Center.

Computer analysis shows how loss of feeling in legs and feet can impact a patient's ability to stand and walk. So researchers at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center teamed up with Mimi Lamantia. As a pre-med student, she saw how patients struggled with things like balance and sway - and, as a dance major, she came up with a way to help by teaching them to tango.

"Even just five weeks of Argentine tango, we were able to decrease that medial and lateral sway by 56 percent," she says.

When it comes to nerve damage in hands and feet, or neuropathy from chemo, nearly 70 percent of patients are affected one month after treatment. Nearly 1 in 3 still have it after six months, causing many patients to undergo physical therapy.

That's something Tim dreaded, until therapy turned into dancing. Then, he began to look forward to each and every step he took toward recovery.
"The improvement was remarkable. And I don't think we would have improved nearly that quickly without it," he says.