Belfast cancer choir Sing For Life hitting the right note
With a recent medical study showing that singing in a choir could help cancer patients, Jenny Lee finds out how Sing For Life, a Belfast-based community choir with more than 100 members affected by cancer, are reaping the benefits of their weekly choral singing get-togethers
CAMARADERIE, stress relief, improved lung function, relaxation and confidence boosting. These are some of the benefits members of the Belfast-based Sing For Life choir have experienced.
The community choir, developed in partnership by Cancer Focus Northern Ireland and The Crescent Arts Centre, was set up in September 2012 for anyone affected by cancer.
The choir, which meets for a weekly two-hour practice in Belfast, provides an opportunity for members to share time together in a supportive and friendly environment and learn new skills in choral singing.
The initial idea for the choir came from Tenovus, a Welsh cancer charity which launched a similar project called Sing With Us, and whose research showed that regular choral participation was followed by improvement in quality of life and self-esteem.
"Research from Wales showed that singing in a choir could be extremely therapeutic for cancer patients as it improved stress relief and coping with depression and we are always keen to explore new ways of supporting patients," says Cancer Focus Care Services manager Deirdre Conlon, who is also a member and unofficial 'roadie' for the choir.
After an initial visit to Wales, Cancer Focus where delighted to form a partnership with Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre and as part of their community outreach Sing For Life was formed, under choirmaster Keith Acheson.
The choir has grown from strength to strength, with 120 members registered and an average 50-70 members from across the north attending weekly practices. No singing experience is required to join the choir whose repertoire includes a wide range of upbeat and uplifting songs, from sacred music to pop.
They have sung at a number of charity events and regularly take part in Belfast Culture Night. Recently they visited Wales to meet and sing with the people that inspired the setting up of their choir.
"Firm friendships have been made through the choir. Before each practice we meet for an informal chat and a cuppa. Whilst we are available to offer medical advice to members if they want to, rarely do we talk about cancer because choir gives the members normalisation," says Deirdre.
Earlier this month research was published in the journal ecancermedicalscience suggesting further health benefits of choral singing in helping cancer patients stay in remission. The research by Tenovus Cancer Care and the Royal College of Music, involved testing saliva samples for levels of the stress hormone cortisol and cytokines – immune-system-signalling molecules that boost the body's ability to fight serious illness.
It was found that one hour of choral singing increased levels of immune proteins and reduced stress – key for preventing cancer returning. The study also found mood improvements and reduced levels of inflammation associated with singing that were greatest for individuals suffering from depression and poor mental wellbeing.
"Many people affected by cancer can experience psychological difficulties such as stress, anxiety and depression. Research has demonstrated that these can suppress immune activity, at a time when patients need as much support as they can get from their immune system," said co-author Dr Daisy Fancourt.
"This research is exciting as it suggests that an activity as simple as singing could reduce some of this stress-induced suppression, helping to improve wellbeing and quality of life among patients and put them in the best position to receive treatment."
Sing For Life have also been involved in their own evaluation survey by Queen's University Belfast, which found that membership improved physical, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
“I have seen broken, sad, unwell people come with poor confidence and low self-esteem, and seen them flourish, laughing and enjoying the choir practice and venues," said one member in the survey.
All the participants of the Sing For Life Choir have been affected by cancer in some way – either by having the disease, or caring for a patient, or losing a loved one.
Soprano Christine Hamill, from Belfast, has found the choir to be a vital support in her recovery from breast cancer. Christine joined a number of support groups following her diagnosis in 2008, but never felt "relaxed" until she joined the choir.
"It may be full of people with cancer, but it's never dreary. Keith pushes us musically, but he's also a hoot and we have lots of craic. There is something comforting about being with people who have had similar experiences. They know how you feel. Cancer is a big deal, but choir and socialising with people who have been through it make it not a big deal."
Christine, whose favourite songs to sing include Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah and Labi Siffre's Something Inside So Strong, encourage others who have been affected by cancer to join the choir.
"You couldn't be in a more relaxed environment. People aren't judging you; you can just be yourself. I'm an anxious person and I find that singing is a great way of being transported from your worries."
Like many members, Christine also found the choir to improve her self-esteem. "You have no confidence after cancer. Physically cancer changes the way you look, especially for those who have undergone chemotherapy, so to stand up and sing in front of an audience is a big step and when you succeed it's a huge confidence booster".
The choir have a busy year of engagements including performing in Clonard Monastery this spring and East Side Arts Festival in August. Some of the choir members are also taking part in The Belfast Tempest, the Northern Ireland interpretation of Shakespeare's classic play, which takes place at T13 in Belfast's Queens Island from today until April 23.
"We have been meeting and singing with members of other choirs, learning brand new music and extended vocal techniques, and have really enjoyed the experience and excitement of working with professional actors and dancers. It is going to be a visual and aural experience not to be missed," says choirmaster Dr Keith Acheson.
:: Anyone interested in further information or joining Sing For Life Community Choir can contact email@example.com or telephone 028 9066 3281.