It is perhaps rare, particularly these days, when any of us feel like we have something, or indeed anything, to sing about. Yet singing is something that cancer survivors are doing a lot more of in Ireland at present, with more cancer patients now alive than ever before.
A global choir of cancer survivors, aptly named Something to Sing About (STSA), was established by full-time consultant medical oncologist, Dr Paul Donnellan, last year. The charity choir offers an outlet for cancer survivors globally through which they can avail of the benefits of music therapy, improve their quality of life and raise much needed funds for cancer research. Despite only devoting time to the choir at evenings and weekends, Dr Donnellan has managed to support the establishment of a network of six active choir centres and 17 registered centres. The novel idea sprung to mind after the Galway native joined the staff choir at Galway University Hospital (GUH). The great sense of camaraderie coupled with the immense therapeutic benefits of singing immediately struck Dr Donnellan as something that might be of huge enjoyment to cancer survivors.
Despite admitting to not having a great voice, Dr Donnellan joked that he could muddle along with the staff choir and wasn’t asked to leave. “I thought a choir would be ideal because it would allow survivors to go along and join a similar group of people in a choir with a shared activity, singing, while having fun together and they may or may not choose to talk about their cancer or treatment at all,” Dr Donnellan explained. “The success of cancer treatment is really a good one if you think about it. Eighty per cent of men diagnosed with prostate cancer will survive and with breast cancer 90 per cent of patients will survive more than five years.”
Dr Donnellan, who has been an oncologist for 11 years, is also honorary lecturer in medical oncology at NUI Galway and is an active member of the Irish Clinical Oncology Research Group (ICORG). He has a special interest in melanoma, lung cancer and genito-urinary malignancies. According to Dr Donnellan, one of the “hot topics” in oncology at the moment is supporting cancer survivors once their treatment has ended.
“Oncology should not just be about treating the cancer and discharging the patient. If you’re diagnosed with cancer your life has changed forever; you will always be worried and you will never be the same person again. Every time you get a headache or a cold you might be worried that it’s your cancer back. Patients who are diagnosed with cancer will always need support and I think we have to get better at providing that support and reassurance,” he asserted. Yet due to the huge financial challenges facing the health service, the issue of survivorship has not yet received the full attention it deserves in Ireland. Thankfully this is now being addressed through the STSA choir. Anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer and who feels they are well enough to sing can join a STSA choir, Dr Donnellan stated.
The six currently active choir centres are based in Castlebar, Westport, Ennis, Ballinasloe, Galway, and Bellmullet and others are due to start in Tuam, Galway Clinic, Sligo, Mullingar, Cork, and Dublin soon. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York, 14 UK breast cancer centres and a centre in Brisbane, Australia, have also expressed interest in the choir. The centre in New York operates a music therapy department to help cancer patients during and beyond their treatment, Dr Donnellan explained.
There is a growing body of evidence that music can be therapeutic in the treatment of blood pressure, anxiety, depression and headaches. “This is not about setting up choirs in cancer support centres, I’m trying to get everyone who is a cancer survivor to take part in a worldwide movement where they all communicate through a website, www.stsa.ie, and they all practice the same songs,” Dr Donnellan explained. STSA members sing a range of songs including "Lean On Me", "With a Little Help from my Friends” and “Amazing Grace”.
Voluntary musical directors assist each group in learning and singing the songs so that when all STSA members come together for a concert, they will be able to sing in unison. Dr Donnellan aims to have a concert with 1,000 cancer survivors with a famous band to play alongside them in a few years time.
“I think the impact factor of having 1,000 cancer survivors singing in harmony would be very powerful and positive,” Dr Donnellan said. “People can set up a group in their living room and can practice the songs locally if they want as they will get the words on the website. “All you need is a group of cancer survivors, a keyboard to give you the note, someone who knows a little bit about music to keep people in harmony, and a room.”
An STSA concert and carol service have already been held. The next STSA concert is planned for Easter Sunday at the Bailey Allen Hall in NUI Galway. The event, while hoping to generate much-needed funds for cancer research, is also a Gathering event and will see 100 members perform.
Weekly rehearsals are not limited to cancer patients; friends and family can attend rehearsals but recordings and concerts will be limited to cancer survivors, Dr Donnellan remarked. The 210 members are currently aged from seven to 84 years. Some members have cancer while others have been in remission for several years. “The whole concept here is not about preparing for a concert or a recording; it’s not about the destination it’s about a journey. If it’s not fun each week and people are not enjoying it then the concept is a failure and I’ll disband it. “I don’t want people feeling they have to do this. Life is tough enough. They may have health worries and financial worries and the last thing they want is to be getting grief about rehearsals. I don’t want to add pressure or stress to anyone,” Dr Donnellan said. “Yet at the same time it’s not just about turning up and having fun either. If it’s worthwhile it’s worth doing right and as well as we can.
“If concerts generate funds those funds will go into cancer research. This is not just about supporting survivors but it’s also about supporting the people who aren’t lucky enough to be cured of their disease or who aren’t up to singing.”