Matt Bergens' passion is Latin dance. That passion, combined with his personal experience, inspired his goal to raise $100,000 to fight cancer, by holding a Latin dance festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, September 21–24.
One evening a couple of years ago, he took a break at a dance event in Raleigh. A man took a seat next to him and asked Bergens how he got a visible surgical scar.
"I told him I'd had cancer," Bergens said.
Bergens did not realize his new friend was NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D., who is active in the Triangle dance community and teaches beginning and intermediate dance. "He totally downplayed how distinguished he was in the medical community," said Bergens.
A summer in the lab
Their chance meeting was the beginning of a mentoring relationship that resulted in Bergens going back to college as a pre-med student. With Zeldin's encouragement, Bergens applied for, and was accepted into, the highly competitive Summer Internship Program at NIEHS.
"I thought it would be a great opportunity for Matt to see if he liked research," said Zeldin. "He'd never even seen a lab bench before."
It was a good move, according to Doug Bell, Ph.D., who heads the Environmental Epigenomics and Disease Group, where Bergens is working this summer. "Matt is very enthusiastic about his work and science," Bell said. "He has been a quick study learning new bench methods."
Outside the lab, Bergens is hard at work planning a fundraiser for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. He said the center was instrumental in helping him win his battle with the disease.
His plan is to connect the dance and cancer communities, because he credits both with contributing to his healing. "When I was undergoing treatment, I danced a lot," Bergens said. "It was a great form of therapy."
BailaCura (Spanish for dance cure) will take place at North Carolina State University. The dance festival will feature workshops, performances, socials, and a gala dinner. "The goal is to raise $100,000," Bergens said. "We're expecting 750 to 1,000 people." He hopes to make it an annual event.
Zeldin, who serves on the BailaCura planning team, says the Triangle dance community is one of the strongest in the country and very supportive of Bergens. "We have some of the best instructors in the world here, some of whom will take part," Zeldin said.
From the Army to NIEHS
Bergens' medical journey started at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where he was a commissioned officer with the 82nd Airborne Division. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. After several surgeries and radiation, Bergens was medically discharged. His military doctor referred him to a specialist at UNC.
After regaining his health, Bergens' first goal was not necessarily to be a doctor. "I'd already had a great life. I got to jump out of airplanes," he said. "But walking around the hospital one day, I passed this kid who had the biggest smile on his face. When I was discharged, my goal became [to learn] how to help that five-year-old with cancer grow up and live whatever life he chooses."
As a summer intern, Bergens has quickly demonstrated a natural ability for research. "I've worked with many summer interns over the years," said Gary Pittman, a biologist in the Immunity, Inflammation and Disease Laboratory and Bergens' immediate supervisor. "Matt will always stand out as someone special."
Tickets and more information about BailaCura are available online.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)