Sing for Life: Why Music is so Important to Me.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


The one constant that’s been with me throughout my travels with cancer has been my love of music. Listening to music has always inspired me, from a very early age where I listened to Labi Siffre and Buffy Saint Marie, careering headlong through the Sex Pistols and similar punk bands (sorry but The Wurzels and Demis Roussos didn’t do it for me in 1976) in my teenage years, to an eclectic mix now including classical, European dance, country, electro and rock.

Throughout all my operations, my chemotherapy cycle, my two lots of radiotherapy and even my PET Scan in Cheltenham I always listened to music. I found it inspiring, uplifting as I could close my eyes, concentrate wholly on the music, and shut the world out for a brief moment in time. I found it incredibly soothing and relaxing lying in a hospital bed with my headphones on, listening to all sorts of wonderful sounds. Mind, I did skip Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust!

On a cold January day in 2010 I had a phone call from Tenovus asking if Cathy and I would be interested in joining a special choir they were putting together. It was to be made up of cancer patients, their friends and family. My initial reaction was “no”. I wasn’t feeling particularly well, it was bitterly cold outside and I didn’t want to hang around in a hall somewhere trying to get some semblance of sound out of my mouth. After a long think and a chat with Cathy I decided I would give it a go. My biggest hurdle was lack of confidence and self esteem. The thought of going somewhere and meeting new people for the first time filled me with horror, and it took quite a bit of courage to make the decision to go, but go I did.

Ready to perform at the Hilton 2010

The first session was great. It was lovely meeting the small band of people who had decided to come the first time and it was also explained that Tenovus would be doing some research with Cardiff University into the positive effects that singing would have on the group.

Slowly but surely I felt more comfortable with the choir and had some great help with exercises to help improve my vocal range and my voice in general. After ending up with a paralysed vocal cord during my neck dissection surgery, speaking had become a major problem, and singing was a non starter in my view – but here I was singing as part of a choir.

The BBC were also filming the event as part of a documentary which was called It’s Good to Sing. The choir itself was called The Tenovus Sing for Life Choir and after a few sessions we were up and running. I thoroughly enjoyed my time. It was lovely meeting others who had gone through the same thing as me and I felt I could talk about my illness and any upcoming clinics and operations without feeling any of the social stigma attached to cancer.

The first performance was in Cwmbran in front of HRH Princess Anne but Cathy and I unfortunately missed that due to a clinic appointment. The second one was at Tenovus’ Annual Charity Ball, held at the Hilton Hotel in Cardiff on March 5th 2010. What a night that was. Full of passion, emotion and so much adrenaline it was unbelievable. Singing in front of two hundred people was an amazing experience and the choir sounded so good even after only two months of practicing. I was asked to say a few words at the end and even though I was incredibly nervous I was pleased and honored to do it.

Performing at the Senedd June 2011

The choir has gone from strength to strength and we have sung in small halls in front of a few hundred people to the Millennium stadium in front of twenty five thousand. It’s been an honour and privilege to be part of something that has worked so well for everyone concerned and being there makes me forget all that I’m going through at the moment. Even though I’ve missed a few rehearsals and concerts due to illness, when I’m ready to go out again it’s the choir that I first aim for. I have always enjoyed music, listen to it constantly and being a part of the Sing for Life Choir has been the icing on my musical cake.


Hywel has always loved music and finds it helps him to relax and switch off from the world of cancer. I love music I can sing along and dance to, so we have slightly different taste sometimes, but we will often spend evenings together just listening to music we both like.

We found out about the cancer charity, Tenovus, after Hywel’s initial diagnosis in 2007. They helped us to sort out what benefits Hywel could apply for when being ill forced him to retire from teaching. Tenovus asked Hywel to share his story with others and also asked him to talk on radio and TV a couple of times. In January 2010 Tenovus contacted Hywel to ask if he and I would be interested in joining a choir they were setting up, as part of a pilot project, studying the effects of singing on the health and wellbeing of cancer patients and their carers. I don’t think Hywel was too keen at first because his voice was a problem after his operation. I was really excited at the prospect; I thought it was a great idea as we’d talked about joining a choir before Hywel was ill. We’d started salsa dancing classes a couple of months before Hywel was diagnosed and had had to give that up as it was too much for him, so we didn’t really do much socially anymore. Hywel was reassured that you didn’t have to be a great singer to be in the choir. We also asked our good friends June and Martin to join the choir with us so it was something we could do as a foursome.

We went to our first practice in early January 2010 when it was freezing cold and pouring with rain. After we’d told Tenovus that we’d like to join we were informed a documentary was going to be made about the choir being set up. It was great fun from the start, although it took a week or two’s practicing to relax a little and start chatting to others. Hywel was in a social environment where he didn’t feel excluded and I was meeting new people who understood what it was like for me too. We were given CDs to sing along to and I would drive Hywel mad with my constant practicing in the kitchen! The choir only met a couple of times before a performance for HRH Princess Anne, but we unfortunately had to miss that as I was working in North Wales and Hywel had a hospital appointment. The TV crew came to our house to film as they took a liking to Hywel! He’s a real natural in front of the cameras, whereas I get tongue tied and awkward! The next gig was a big deal for us, it was Tenovus’ biggest fundraising event of the year - their annual St David’s day dinner - and Hywel had been asked to say a few words after the choir had sung. We had an amazing evening. The choir was on a real high after singing well, plus it was the last night of filming. Hywel shared the stage with Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen and made an incredibly moving speech, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. The event really brought the people in the choir together. We both felt very emotional for a couple of days after the event. The choir was given an advanced screening of the BBC documentary ‘It’s Good to Sing’. It was such a positive programme, all about people living with cancer rather than about people dying with cancer, which a lot of TV programmes dealing with cancer tend to focus on.

The choir went from strength to strength after the programme. I’ve made some really good friends there, and when Hywel was told his cancer was back we carried on going every week, missing only a few practices when Hywel was having treatment. We’ve performed with the Pendyrus Male voice choir, the Treorchy Male Voice choir, and were the support act for Only Men Aloud in Treorchy! The most memorable performance for me was in Liverpool in November 2010, when we opened the National Cancer Research Institute’s conference.

After performing at the NCRI conference November 2010

Hywel pushed himself to come to choir practice when he was having chemo. I had been asked to audition to sing a small solo part in Liverpool and he thought I might chicken out of auditioning if he didn’t come along to the rehearsals! I got the part and sang a small alto part at the start of our version of “You’ll never Walk Alone”. I think knowing I was going to sing the solo helped us both have the trip to Liverpool as something to focus on beyond the end of Hywel’s chemotherapy. Hywel said he felt very proud when I sang. I felt I was singing those words for him and it was a great feeling to be performing at such an appropriate event. We had a standing ovation at the end of our performance. Hywel found the trip exhausting but also exhilarating. At this year’s NCRI conference Tenovus were given an award for the best charitable initiative for the choir. 

We performed again at the Tenovus St David’s day event in March 2011. Hywel spoke at the event following our performance, this time to an audience of around four hundred people. He spoke really well yet again, making people laugh and feel moved at the same time. After that speech we were asked to sit at the Tenovus table, where we were privileged to spend a few hours with Rory Bremner, who showed Hywel how to use Twitter and still sends him regular tweets!

Hywel missed quite a few rehearsals during the summer and autumn of this year as his voice had grown very weak again and the pain from his treatment scarring was very debilitating. I carried on going on my own but really missed him being there. When Hywel’s consultant told him surgery could improve his voice, I was really hopeful. Two weeks after the operation, Hywel was back at choir and I’m really happy we can carry on doing this together.

BBC Documentary 'It's Good to Sing'

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