Joined together by an invisible chord, members of one Barnsley-based choir really are singing off the same hymn sheet. They’ve got all their life to live and all their love to give, they are the We Can Survive Singers.
They’re not professional vocalists, they don’t read music, and they definitely don’t take themselves too seriously. Just real people, going through real problems, who want to escape from reality for a short while and enjoy the theraputic power of laughter and music.
What brings the chorus together, other than their love of singing, is that every member is either living with or has had cancer. They meet up, not to discuss their individual problems, but to encourage each other that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to define them.
In a bid to improve the social, emotional and psychological welfare of cancer patients, the group was launched last October by complementary therapist, Cheryl Roberts, who has worked in cancer care for over 20 years.
While undertaking treatments such as hypnotherapy and aromatherapy a common thread began to unravel amongst Cheryl’s clients. Many felt isolated, lonely or lacking in self-esteem and Cheryl found herself becoming a therapist in more ways than one.
“When you’re diagnosed with cancer, everyone around you focuses on the physical journey and medically they want you to survive. But often it’s the psychological journey that hurts more and is harder to forget about.
“Even after treatment has ended, the emotional rollercoaster cancer patients may find themselves on is often still going,” Cheryl says.
In a cruel twist of fate, Cheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago and so finally understood this difficult journey her clients would talk of.
During her own experience, Cheryl gained invaluable support from oncology services like The Well, a place where she had worked for many years. But she also found herself becoming a closed book around friends and family, not wanting to burden anyone with how she was really feeling deep down.
“You try and put on a brave face but I’m sure anyone who has had cancer will understand there are days where you struggle to see any positives. After I finished treatment, people were always saying how proud they were of me and how I had to move on now I was ‘better’. But to be honest I just felt horrific.”
Well, her real words ended in excrement and a pardon for her French…
After a few too many wines one night last year, Cheryl was talking with friend and sculptor, Liz Grundy, about starting a choir for people living with cancer to help them overcome isolation – particularly long-term patients who may have been discharged from NHS services but are still struggling.
Liz put her in touch with Creative Recovery, a support network that uses creativity to support recovery and boost well-being. With the belief that we’re all in recovery from something, the team were more than happy to help Cheryl with funding applications to enable her to provide creative relief with her choir vision.
Professional musician Simon Grainger, who helps run projects at Creative Recovery, offered to be the group’s musical director after having his own cancer scare and seeing his mother-in-law go through treatment for the disease.
Cheryl also contacted Macmillan Cancer Support’s engagement lead, Ian Margerison, whose role includes helping local people start self-help support groups for people affected by cancer, to see if there was any funding available. Amazingly, he came back with a £5,000 grant which would cover start-up fees and running costs for a year.
“I bit Cheryl’s hand off when she mentioned the idea of starting a choir. It’s a fantastic initiative as not everybody wants to sit around talking about their feelings. I think they do more laughing than singing but it’s been great to see how much more confident and open the members have become in such a short time,” Ian says.
After approaching the idea at her anxiety management class at The Well, the singing group began with eight eager and excited members at their first meeting back in November last year and has since grown to almost 30 who regularly attend the weekly sessions every Wednesday at St Paul’s Church in Old Town.
The two-hour singing sessions are purely for that – singing. Members come to have fun and shut off from daily life for a couple of hours so sitting around talking about cancer is the last thing on the agenda.
For those who do want advice and a friendly ear to talk to, Cheryl also runs a coffee morning every Tuesday at Asda’s community room at the Old Mill Lane store; the Asda team also donated £500 towards the singers’ green uniforms.
“This burdensome journey we are on can be heavy at times and we want our singers to come and feel uplifted and positive. Many say they finally feel like they belong.
“Yes, we don’t sit around moping and groaning but if someone is having a blip then we can signpost them to the different services available. Plus, Simon says you lose weight when you sing so I guess it’s healthier therapy than a bar of chocolate,” Cheryl says.
The singing ensemble is made up of people from different walks of life, with varying musical abilities and all at different stages of their cancer journeys. But they are all guiding each other through the motions and singing proudly that they’re still standing – yeah, yeah, yeah!
While you don’t need to hold down a tune to join, there are of course some music enthusiasts in the group such as Tania who joined We Can Survive to help relax her and boost morale while recovering from bowel cancer.
“My dad could sing like Pavarotti so I’ve grown up around music and always loved singing. When I’m having a bad day, I put my earphones in and the music blocks everything else out.
“Cheryl has helped me through some of the lowest times of my life so when she said she was starting a singing group my name was straight on the list. A lot of people using cancer services worry about what happens once you’re given the ‘all clear’ and taken off the books; the worry is still in the back of your mind, so this singing group helps us stay connected,” Tania says.
Some have known Cheryl for years through her role as a therapist, turning from clients to friends, like Donna who regularly attend’s Cheryl’s anxiety management classes to learn how to deal with her worry and apprehension about the cancer returning.
“For me, it’s not if it will return but when – I’ve already had one recurrence. You’re supposed to be happy about a clear scan but I was always thinking negatively and would spend the next six months panicking that something would be wrong. Cheryl has taught me ways to think more optimistically,” Donna says.
Then there are new faces to the group such as Noel, one of just two male singers in the group, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in March this year and is in the early stages of treatment.
After getting frustrated with the lack of information being given to him, Noel sought solace in others who had walked the path he was on and saw an advert for Cheryl’s coffee morning. When she found out he’d had a good voice in his youth, Noel says Cheryl twisted his arm to join the singing group, too.
“The hardest part for me was stepping forward to ask for support. When I first came to the choir it was like entering the lionesses’ den which is ironic as being surrounded by all these women emasculates me just as much as my treatment does,” Noel says.
While some come to make new friends, there are also those who have been pals forever, like Lisa and Julie, who have unfortunately – or fortunately, whichever way you look at it – found themselves facing cancer together and pulling each other through it.
Lisa has battled cancer twice now and is helping lifelong friend Julie deal with her own issues and emotions following a recent cancer diagnosis.
“Lisa introduced me to the coffee morning which has been a great support for me as I feel like I can ask for advice about personal problems. They’ve advised me to ask for a PICC line to help ease the discomfort in chemo and even told me where to get the best wigs from. Once I’m feeling better and stronger I know Lisa is desperate for me to come to the choir,” Julie says.
For Lisa, she knows how liberating joining the choir has been for her and wants others to see the benefits also.
“For those two hours, I don’t feel like a person who has had cancer twice. I don’t even feel like a mum. I’m just me, Lisa. I’ve done things I’ve never thought I would do; I’ve never sung before in my life, never mind in front of hundreds of people.
“But it wouldn’t matter if we sang badly, most of us just come to have a laugh and have a good time. Plus Cheryl just makes it, she’s such a beautiful soul and has been a blessing to all of us.”
Of course, a humble Cheryl never takes any credit for the remarkable and selfless work she’s done – even though most members echo how she has been a lifeline for them throughout their own journeys, often putting aside her own problems in the process.
“I planted the seed but everyone else has helped make it grow and I’m really proud of all of them. It’s been so lovely to watch people develop and for friendships to form,” Cheryl says.
There are no real rules for the group other than no sad songs allowed. They sing everything from Let it Be, to Lean on Me with a bit of This is Me thrown in for good measure.
So far, the group has performed to hundreds of people from getting supermarket shoppers dancing around their trolleys, to patients and their families shedding a tear whilst listening to them sing at Barnsley Hospice.
They were also invited to open a fundraising concert at Doncaster Racecourse for Weston Park Cancer Charity. This September, the singers will also be performing at Matalan Cortonwood on Saturday 14th and at Pontefract Races on Thursday 26th.
Alas, the singing group’s initial funding pot runs out in October and Cheryl and the team at Creative Recovery are now looking at other ways to finance the choir for it to sustain its crucial role in its members’ lives.
“We’ve seen it works and the fact we have almost 30 members means there is obviously a need for it so it would be a shame for the group to end when it is only just beginning,” Simon says.
The group meets up every Wednesday 6-8pm at St Paul’s Church, Old Town, Barnsley.
To find out more about joining the choir call Cheryl on 07791 281879
To donate or sponsor the choir please contact Helen or Hayley at Creative Recovery on 01226 805885 or email firstname.lastname@example.org