If you or someone you love has had a cancer diagnosis, you know how scary, devastating and lonely it can be. And while here in the UK we're very lucky to have excellent medical treatment offered to us by the NHS, if you're faced with cancer, it's just as important to have a support network around you to help you deal with the emotional and psychological effects of cancer.
That's why we at Tenovus Cancer Care started our Sing with Us choirs. We know that having somewhere to go where patients, carers and people who've lost loved ones to cancer can have fun, meet others in a similar position and learn something new really does help them to cope. We make rehearsals accessible to anyone, no matter what their musical ability, and provide a really supportive, fun and fulfilling experience at every single rehearsal.
We now have 17 choirs with 1,100 people singing every week. Since 2010 our inspiring choir members have been telling us how amazing being part of a choir makes them feel and this was confirmed in several psychosocial studies we did. However, we wanted to know more. So, in 2014, we embarked on an project to look at whether we could measure any biological changes brought about by singing in a choir.
As a non-scientist but a lifelong music advocate, it was a hugely exciting adventure for me to be talking to choir members about lab research and finding out whether the obvious power of the choirs that I saw every day could actually be having an impact on their biology, too. We asked 193 members of five choirs across South Wales to give us a sample of their saliva before an hour of singing, and again just after, and asked them to fill out questionnaires so we could see how singing affected their mood. We sent their samples to a lab to be tested for a range of biomarkers including stress hormones, immune function cytokines and neuropeptides related to social bonding. Royal College of Music and University College London researchers then analysed the results to make sure the statistics were accurate and independently verifiable.
The results were incredible. The level of choir members' cortisol (a stress hormone) was lower after the rehearsal and there was an impact on their endorphin and oxytocin levels, which relate to social bonding. Excitingly, there was also a positive change in a range of biomarkers related to immune function and inflammatory response in the body, both of which are linked to the body's ability to fight serious illnesses including cancer. All these results were statistically significant and were consistent across all five different locations, on different days, with different choir leaders.
The results gave further insight into everything our choir members tell us about how singing makes them feel better. For example, Pauline, in our Bridgend Sing with Us choir, says:
"When being treated over an eighteen month period it felt very impersonal and that made it difficult to stay hopeful. I was at my lowest ebb, but then I learned about the Sing with Us choir and I'm so glad I joined! Singing in the choir brought fun, hope, laughter, new people, joy and a challenge to my life! I'm almost glad I had cancer, because it means I'm now part of something so good."
I think our choirs have such a positive impact on our members for a number of reasons. Singing with other people is something anyone can do (even if they think they can't hold a tune!) and whilst a choir is a social activity it's also one where members don't have to talk about their experiences, as they perhaps might with many other supportive or community activities. In a choir we communicate with each other by singing - together - and it's a personal, primal and emotive connection, on a completely different level from conversations (which many people are not totally comfortable with, especially when they're feeling vulnerable).
Choirs bring people together using a straightforward, accepted structure and singing binds us together so we can find support, achievement, empathy, pride and an identity. Our members are no longer just the person that survived cancer or lost their partner, or is dying; they are a choir member and a friend.
This new research offers a very strong indication that the psychological and social benefits are driven by biological changes brought about by participating in our Sing with Us choirs.
But we don't want to stop here. Whilst encouraging, the limitation of the study was that we only proved there were biological changes over one hour, so now we want to look in more depth at the effect of choir singing over several months. To do this we're launching a two year study with the Royal College of Music and the Royal Marsden Hospital to expand both our choirs and our research. It's such an exciting time to be involved in choirs - there is so much buzz around them at the moment - and I'm delighted to be a part of it. All that's left for me now is to encourage you to join us too, and experience the magic for yourself.