Sharon Jones Rebounds After Cancer

Categories: Feature

Jesse Dittmar

The outdoor crowd of some 6,000 fans in Boise that night in April probably remember a few distinct things about the show they'd come to see.

One: It was great. Of course it was. This was Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, after all — the raucous but tight-as-a-drum soul powerhouse fronted by a not-quite-five-foot dynamo. The group, together nearly 20 years, has made a living putting smiles on the faces of crowds around the world.

See also: Oh Rad, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings Showed Up on Saturday Night Live

Those in attendance also likely remember how very cold it was. So cold. It had dipped into the 20s. You could see the breath of the trio of Dap-Kings horn players between blows.

Despite the frigid Idaho air, Jones was everything fans have now come to expect — a whirling firecracker of a woman whose megawatt smile alone could generate enough electricity to power all the Edison bulbs in Brooklyn. They surely remember that despite the cold, she didn't wear a jacket. At one point she even kicked off her shoes, shimmying across the stage for the remainder of the set barefoot, in a sequined black dress complete with tassels that shook in unison with her shoulder-length locks.

They remember a party.

What they don't remember — what they couldn't have known — is that Jones was hurting that night.

Sometime midway through the show, she felt as though she'd been sucker-punched in the small of her back. The instant it happened, she turned away from the audience. Only her band could see the rictus of pain etched across her face.

Then it seemed to pass. Maybe the cold had exacerbated the aches she'd grown accustomed to, the price of a life lived on the road.


But the pain she felt that night never did really go away. Jones knew something was terribly wrong.

Jesse Dittmar

Seven months after that frosty night, Jones gingerly makes her way down the stairs of her friend Megan Holken's home in Sharon Springs, a speck of town upstate where thousands once flocked hoping to remedy a litany of ailments via the curative springs that percolate up from the rocky terrain. Rectangular pads of beige Berber carpet line the wooden staircase, placed by Holken to ease the burden on Jones's sore feet and lessen the chance of a painful spill. At 57, the woman known for being a ball of endless energy now finds that the most mundane physical activities have become an exhausting affair. Taking a shower feels like running 10 blocks.

Autumn came quickly to this sleepy town on the edge of the Catskills, and the frosty October has Jones feeling cautious. "I've been doing things, but since my white blood cell count and immune system has been down, I'm careful. It's important. I don't want to be around too many people right now," she says, curled up in an oversized lavender reading chair whose swirling floral pattern matches the daisies on her silk blouse.

Jesse Dittmar

The pain she felt in Boise that night worsened over time. She made multiple visits to various masseuses who worked on the gnawing knot, but nothing seemed to untie it. By the time the long tour wound down, she needed a bandmate to place her items in overhead bins during between-concert flights.

From massage therapists, she graduated to doctors and hospitals and seemingly endless tests in her native South Carolina. Then, finally, she got the ugly truth.

In early June, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Stage II.

"I just started crying," she says of the day a doctor delivered the news. "It all came out at once. I always figured I was going to die at a young age."

It was only three short years ago that Jones lost her mother to cancer. By the time they had it located, it was too late to treat.

"Once the cancer got me, I thought, 'Oh, this is it; I'm getting ready to die,'" Jones says.

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