The dance of life

August 16, 2008 by
Health   No Comments Yet

Her schedule would be demanding by any standards. For seven hours a day, five days a week, 18-year-old Natalie Bradley takes classes or practice sessions in ballet, tap and modern dance – with extra lessons most evenings – as part of her studies at the City College Norwich. This summer, she’s rehearsed with the English Youth Ballet in London, the national dance company that offers just 100 young people from outside the capital the chance to perform on stage. For Natalie, who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, staying in peak physical condition is essential. She suffers from cystic fibrosis (CF) – and the constant exercise helps counter some of the worst effects of the illness.

Cystic fibrosis is the most common life-threatening inherited disease in the UK, with more than 8,000 sufferers. More than two million people carry the CF gene and if two carriers have a child, there is a one-in-four chance of that baby being affected. The symptoms are excessive heavy mucous, which affects digestion.  Although average life expectancy is just 31, advances in treatment mean that young sufferers can expect to live a lot longer and research into a gene therapy is well under way. If Natalie is concerned about the future, she conceals it well.

‘Ever since I can remember I’ve known I have CF. Doctors, hospitals pills and injections have always been part of my life. But when I’m dancing I don’t think about it – it’s like an escape.’

Her next step is an intensive dance class in Norwich in September to hone her technique. ‘There are times when I feel really tired. Even then I urge myself to get up. I never want to stop dancing.’ She admits her ambition drives her on. ‘If I sat around when I was feeling ill, I wouldn’t have achieved what I have, getting into the English Youth Ballet, and performing so much. Having drive has helped me.’

When Natalie, who lives in a village outside Norwich, was diagnosed with CF, her parents, Wendy and Kevin, both 47, were devastated. ‘Our son Carl, now 22, had been born with Kallman syndrome and so we were really looking for symptoms of that.’ Kallman sufferers have decreased functioning of the sex hormone-producing glands, which may delay puberty.

‘Carl needed constant physio to build up his strength,’ says Wendy. ‘So when they told us Natalie would need it every day too, it wasn’t much of an adjustment.’ Although she appears the picture of health, Natalie suffers recurrent chest infections, the most serious of which – three years ago – coincided with her GCSEs. Her recovery took two months. Her daily medication includes steroid and ventalin inhalers, another inhaler that exercises her lungs and about 30 tablets.

Yet Natalie is upbeat: ‘I’ve had to stay in hospital a few times but luckily I’ve been looked after by my mum at home when I’ve been really poorly.’

Natalie’s recent performance of Coppelia with the English Youth Ballet was a particular thrill. ‘It gave me a chance to experience a professional company,’ she explains.

Now her thoughts are on applying to one of the big ballet schools – the Northern Ballet or The Place in London.

Whether Natalie ever achieves her dream of performing in Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, there is no doubt her family is incredibly proud of her. ‘Having CF hasn’t stopped me doing anything,’ adds Natalie. ‘You’ve just got to be determined to make the most of your life.’

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About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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