April 20, 2010 -- Think of the term "hip-hop star," and 66-year-old Sharon Kha is probably not the first person who would come to mind.
When she dons her sideways baseball cap and hangs an oversized plastic clock on a chain around her neck ... well, she still doesn't look entirely the part.
But Kha, a former vice president at the University of Arizona who in 2003 was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, has hit the YouTube music scene in an unusual way -- by rapping about her condition.
"Now, I know it seems incongruous that an old white woman would want to be a rap musician," she says in one of her YouTube appearances. "But I have attitude."
She then launches into her performance, much to the delight of the audience, many of whom also have Parkinson's -- a condition that leads to tremors and other involuntary movements.
"Well once you are a 'Parky' it's hard to relate.
People meet you on the street and they say you look great.
Well you're drooling,
And you're shuffling,
There's a tremor in your hand.
What part of great don't they understand?
The crowd chants along on cue. For a while, everyone enjoys making light of the condition which, according to the American Parkinson Disease Association, affects more than 1.5 million Americans.
Among these patients, Kha is a phenomenon -- a woman with Parkinson's who addresses the everyday challenges that the condition poses in lyrics intended both to entertain and raise awareness.
For Kha, the idea came to her while she was on a cruise she decided to take after she received her diagnosis. The onboard entertainment included comedians and rappers. As Kha watched, she said, she found herself trying to analyze what it was that made these acts compelling and humorous.
"It was being able to make fun of your frailties," Kha said she realized. She added that Parkinson's comes with its fair share of frailties.
During her walk the next morning, she began piecing together some rhymes that incorporated scientific terminology. The raps that she composed included mention of the four main symptoms of Parkinson's, available treatments and a call for more funding for research.
Rapping About Parkinson's Raises Awareness
"Everything was kind of built on solid scientific information," she said.
As she reflected more on the challenges she faced, her collection of raps grew. She started testing out her creations at Parkinson's patient support groups.
"I would practice the rap to see people laughed or got offended," she said. "After all, the chances are that people could get offended at a rap that made fun of Parkinson's symptoms."
But she said that the feedback to the raps has been overwhelmingly positive.
"They have just been delighted. They laugh," she said. "The raps are full of a lot of inside jokes that people with Parkinson's can respond to, but maybe other people wouldn't get the joke."
"She raps about the cotton in a medication bottle, and how difficult that can get for those with Parkinson's," said Tom Viviano of the Arizona Chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association. "The words in these raps touch people. I think it calms people's fears. The psychological component for Sharon and others is uplifting."
Kha has performed at the organization's conferences, at which 300 to 400 people with Parkinson's were in attendance, he said, and the reactions are "overwhelmingly positive," with many patients chiming in on Kha's cue.
Could Rapping Cut Parkinson's Symptoms?
Viviano said he believes Kha's rapping may help her not only psychologically, but physiologically as well. Indeed, past research has suggested that music can be used therapeutically in Parkinson's patients to help them control the muscle movements that come along with the condition.
In 2000, for example, a small Italian study showed that Parkinson's patients who participated in music therapy enjoyed fewer symptoms and a higher quality of life than those who did not receive such therapy.
Other activities that involve rhythmic movements have likewise shown benefit in some of these patients.
Thus far, no study on rapping's effect on Parkinson's has been conducted; however, Parkinson's experts said the idea that it can be helpful is not an outlandish one.
"Strong beats -- from rap or counting, et cetera -- can help people with PD move better," said Dr. Joel Perlmutter, head of the Movement Disorders Section at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo.
Other activities have been shown to help.
"It has long been recognized that dancing and other rhythmic activities help mobility in Parkinson's disease," said Dr. Cheryl Waters, professor in the Division of Movement Disorders at Columbia University in New York.
Dr. Mark Stacy, professor of neurology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., said certain activities may help blunt the tremors and tics of Parkinson's by engaging the brain -- essentially occupying the mind so it is simply too busy to cause the movement disorders.
"The Cleveland Clinic has some reports on vigorous bicycling improving Parkinson's Disease symptoms, and preventing the re-emergence of tremor for a brief period after exercise," Stacy said. "While there are claims of treatment benefit, it may be that the motor program of the vigorous exercise is difficult to stop -- and keeps the tremor at bay."
Rapping for a Cause
Until the research catches up with Kha's rapid-fire lyrics, the chief benefit of her raps may be in the form of both levity and awareness. Kha's creations have become a rallying cry for further support of research on Parkinson's. She calls for greater funding and more support for the condition -- and many of her lyrics seem to motivate her audiences to do the same.
"The real message is to take a positive attitude," Perlmutter said. "That helps -- fight against the disease, and stay as active as possible."
"Any enjoyable activity with social interaction is an ideal way to improve emotional well being," Stacy said. "She appears to be really enjoying herself, as does her participatory audience. ... I think Dr. Kha has done something great for herself and for the Parkinson's Disease community."
Parkinson's Rap a Healthy Dose of Humor
Kha said her lyrics have become a weapon against the condition -- both for her and her audiences.
"I think it's really great to be able to step back from this disease and not see it as this grim, overwhelming force in our life, but be able to laugh at some of the symptoms of the disease," she said.