Morpeth mother tells of valuable work of Henry Dancer Days

Jane Nattrass speaks to members of Morpeth Rotary Club about Henry Dance Days and its work helping families of young people with cancer.
Jane Nattrass speaks to members of Morpeth Rotary Club about Henry Dance Days and its work helping families of young people with cancer.

MORPETH ROTARY CLUB

Henry Dancer Days is a charity that supports families where a child has an aggressive form of bone cancer. The speaker was Jane Nattrass, the mother of Henry Dancer who died of bone cancer in 2010 aged 12.

After the end of Henry’s middle school years the family went on a wonderful holiday. Henry started King Edward VI School when they got back. One month later Jane noticed that he had a limp.

She made an appointment at the doctor’s and by Monday of the following week they had been given a diagnosis of bone cancer, affecting the hip and knee of his left leg. By December he was in a wheelchair with his leg stuck out in plaster. He never went to school again.

During his treatment his friends were encouraged to keep calling round and they are family friends to this day. They are now about 19 and at university.

Henry was always very social, polite and perky. His birthday was in January and his Grandma knew someone who knew Alan Shearer. It was hoped they could get him to sign a card, but in fact he came to Henry’s home to visit him just after his first chemotherapy session and sent a signed card.

Henry had months of treatment that had bad side effects. There was a radical operation to remove leg bones from thigh to shin, but he got worse and by May they found that the disease had spread too far. None of the friends who kept coming round and supporting him knew it was terminal. He died in November.

When he was three or four he once said he could see into a rainbow. Just after he died Jane looked out over the valley and saw a beautiful double rainbow. She liked to think that it was Henry staying in touch.

While he was ill the family had come across many practical problems.

They could not go to the Metro Centre in case his leg was knocked. Even the disabled toilets were too small to turn the wheelchair with his leg sticking out. They could not use the car because of his leg and had to hire taxis. It cost £140 for a taxi to an awards ceremony only seven miles from where they lived.

Jane and her husband had to give up work to look after Henry so there were financial pressures. She has had back problems since she slipped a disc lifting and moving him around. After he died she was so exhausted that she had to rest for nine months.

An annual award was created in Henry’s honour at his primary school for the Year 6 boy who was most caring and made the community a better place. A memorial garden was created with a rainbow feature.

During Henry’s illness Jane kept a detailed diary and sent out regular email updates to friends and relatives. They helped her to make sense of what she went through. She found many kindnesses were performed by well-wishers. An anonymous envelope would appear with a contribution to car parking costs or the cost of getting to hospital. Gifts of food helped to keep them going.

Jane decided that Henry would have wanted her to do what she could to help others so she set up a charity in his name. Dancer was the name of her first husband and Henry’s father. She used the diary and emails to write a book called 348 Days as a source of encouragement and support to others. Any money from sales, at £9.99 each, goes to the charity.

She showed pictures and told the stories of young people the charity had helped. A laptop had been bought for one girl; a replacement washing machine for a family; some gas bills paid, and other examples of support to those who were suffering through dark and difficult times.

A teenage girl who had lost so much weight through chemotherapy that her clothes did not fit was bought a new bright outfit. She was able to go out on her own with confidence after three years of only going out with her mum.

Jane has given many presentations and encouraged others to fund-raise through organising events like the Coast to Coast Bike Ride. Many businesses have helped, including Heighley Gate Garden Centre and the Copthorne Hotel in Newcastle.

It is very much a North East charity, but so far 250 families throughout the UK have been given help.

There has not been lot of research into bone cancer in children as there are not enough cases to reach the necessary number of test samples. The survival rate is 30 per cent after five years and has hardly improved over the last five years. For leukaemia the survival rate has gone from 20 per cent to 80 per cent in the same period.

Much work by the charity centres around the RVI, where most of the medical care is given. It provides a weekly storyteller for the children to take their minds off the disease and allow carers to have a break. A ceramic artist will start soon.

The charity has been encouraged to apply for more funding from BBC Children in Need and a company in Consett has given a basic office.

It supplies information and keeps up links with centres of excellence in Berlin, Ontario and Australia.

A vote of thanks was given by Michael Duffy, who as Head at KEVI had been one of Jane’s teachers. He said that Jane had been one of those students that you could not forget. She had shown herself to be energetic, talented and socially-minded. She was a remarkable young woman who had been through a great deal and had put life, energy and creativity into helping other people to survive. Many families had much to thank her for.