Touched by cancer, moved by music

Bolton Cancer Voices sopranos at Arley Hall, Cheshire, UK

Bolton Cancer Voices have found a way to embrace living with cancer through song. We met their founder, Karen Elliott, to find out more

Imagine a place where everyone knows you’ve been touched by cancer – but you don’t have to talk about it unless you want to.

A place where cancer brings people together – and music keeps them together.

A choir where the criteria for joining is not whether you can hold a tremulous bass note for a semibreve or hit a high C – but that, at some point in your life, you’ve been diagnosed with cancer.

New way to support

Bolton Cancer Voices was set up nearly a decade ago by Karen Elliott, a local resident who wanted to bridge the support gap for people who were living with or beyond cancer.

Karen Elliott, founder of Bolton Cancer Voices
Karen Elliott

“Back in 2012, Bolton had very little in the way of resources outside of the NHS for cancer patients and nothing for cancer survivors,” Karen says. “I felt I wanted to do something to help, but it had to be something therapeutic and uplifting; positive with a supportive element to it.”

Karen, who has been involved in singing and amateur dramatics for most of her life, also had a personal reason for setting up the choir: she lost her father to cancer. “My father was diagnosed with cancer of unknown primary site [where cancer has spread to more than one part of the body, but doctors are not sure in which part of the body the first tumour appeared]. That was on New Year’s Eve 1998, and he died in March the next year.”

Inspired partly by the BBC series The Choir, Karen wanted to do something to help people with cancer and believed in the uplifting power of singing, and singing together, to support and encourage cancer patients. She knew exactly who she wanted as musical director, Clive Rushworth, and contacted local radio, television and newspapers to spread the word and encourage people to join.

Finally Bolton Cancer Voices held its first rehearsal on 25th June 2012 – and there are many reasons why they’re still going strong. Helen Eadie is now the musical director, and the choir send flyers to hospitals, hospices, cancer units and surgeries, engaging with medics, and placing leaflets in local venues.

There’s no audition and the choir rehearse and perform a variety of styles: classical choral music, musicals, carols and more.

Bolton Cancer Voices at their annual Jingle Bell Sing-A-Long concert in the Victoria Hall, Bolton, in 2019
Bolton Cancer Voices at their annual Jingle Bell Sing-A-Long concert in the Victoria Hall, Bolton, in 2019.

And over the past ten years – and even over the past two years when COVID has placed many restrictions on people singing and meeting – Karen has seen the benefits of a safe place for people living with cancer, but where the emphasis is not on cancer itself.

On a journey

“Everybody treats the choir differently,” she says. “We introduce ourselves by our first name and then it’s up to everyone how much of their journey they chose to share.

“Everyone knows because of the membership criteria that everyone else at some point has been impacted by cancer – you could have had a cancer diagnosis yesterday or it could have been years ago. We’ve had members join us the day after they were diagnosed and we’ve had someone come to us almost at the end of their life.”

Unlike a formal cancer support group, there’s no need for members to talk about their cancer ‘status’, and the choir has also been helpful for people diagnosed with a less common cancer.

Laughing, learning, living

“People can choose to leave the cancer at the door and focus on the next song, the next concert, the next challenge,” Karen says. “We have had people with rarer cancers, who have fewer places they feel they belong. We’re not a ‘cancer choir’; we’re just a community choir and we’re here to have laughs, learn new things, and have great choral experiences.

“The only concession we make to cancer is encouraging people to sit down when performing if they’re less well. The person next to them will do likewise so they don’t feel too conspicuous.”

Bolton Cancer Voices have found a way to embrace living with cancer – and it’s not just for the benefit of people in the choir. “We hope to inspire our own members but also anyone in the audience who may be facing a cancer diagnosis. I don’t think we’ve ever done a performance where at least one person from the audience hasn’t said what a positive and uplifting experience it has been for them or that they can’t put into words what the power of seeing us perform has done for them as they face and negotiate their own cancer journey.

“We’ve had people due for surgery and dreading it. And they’ve been dragged to this choir they didn’t want to come to, and say afterwards, ‘I can’t put into words what you’ve done for me.’”

Emerging research has shown that singing can help people with cancer, including improving their mood and even benefiting their immune system.

Karen says: “For me we can talk about endorphins, but does it matter how the magic worked? If someone comes in and leaves feeling better, it’s a win-win – it doesn’t matter how.

“If they come in feeling heavy of heart and leave with a skip in their step, it’s what we wanted to do when we set out. Life is precarious. Live it to the full.”

Find out more

If you’re interested in joining Bolton Cancer Voices, visit the website or get in touch on Facebook or Twitter. Donations are always welcome!

We’ve also found the following local choirs for people with cancer. If you’re interested in joining a choir in your area, ask around at local hospitals, cancer units, charities or churches to see what’s available.