How a choir made up entirely of people fighting cancer will – like the Military Wives – humble and inspire all Britain

Singing for their lives: How a choir made up entirely of people fighting cancer will – like the Military Wives before them – humble and inspire all Britain

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UPDATED:

07:24 GMT, 15 October 2012

When Laura Cooper was a little girl she used to dream of singing on a big stage to rapturous applause but, as is so often the case with childhood dreams, life got in the way.

‘I sang in choirs at school — I was quite good, too,’ she says. ‘I always had this vision of one day standing on the stage at the Albert Hall, belting it out.

‘But then I grew up, got married, had children and thought it would never happen.’

Transformed: Cat Southall (front) and the Big C choir, including Laura Cooper (front row, red top)

Transformed: Cat Southall (front) and the Big C choir, including Laura Cooper (front row, red top)

At the age of 37, it finally has happened, though, and Laura is still on a high from performing at Britain’s most prestigious music venue last month — as part of a choir she would never have chosen to be in. For she is the star singer of the Big C choir, whose members have all been diagnosed with cancer.

Laura, who is as quick with the quips as she is memorable with the melodies, describes her singing style as ‘a cross between Katherine Jenkins on a bad day and Dolly Parton, but with only one breast’ — referring to her breast cancer diagnosis six months ago.

She is one of 35 members of the new choir, which is following in the footsteps of the Military Wives by taking a televised musical journey to the Royal Albert Hall.

No doubt they will journey into the nation’s hearts as well.

Members range from ten to 80 years old — some are in remission, but more face uncertain outcomes.

Inspiration: The singers in the Big C choir are hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Military Wives

Inspiration: The singers in the Big C choir are hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Military Wives

Success story: The Big C choir are aiming to match the success of Military Wives Choir, pictured here with their Single of the Year trophy at the Classic BRIT Awards at the Royal Albert Hall

Success story: The Big C choir are aiming to match the success of Military Wives Choir, pictured here with their Single of the Year trophy at the Classic BRIT Awards at the Royal Albert Hall

A handful have been told their illness is terminal. They joined the choir in the full knowledge that they may not be around for the final performance.

The singers’ mission to appear at the
Albert Hall’s Superjam 2012 event — to perform alongside professional
acts such as rocker Alice Cooper and British tenor Alfie Boe — will be
shown tonight at 8pm in a Channel 4 documentary called Sing For Your
Life.

It’s every bit as moving and inspirational as the one made about the Military Wives.

But
what may surprise viewers, given the circumstances that brought the
choir together, is that it’s every bit as uplifting as well.

Most of the members are drawn from Wales and the South-West, and the plan was for them to meet weekly for three months.

They were put through their paces by choir mistress Cat Southall — the female equivalent of Gareth Malone.

A
singer and music teacher, Cat — who favours a blonde crop and funky
jewellery rather than Malone’s spectacles and tweeds — basks in the
comparison to the TV star who founded the Military Wives.

Daunting task: Choir master Cat Southall has revelled in the challenge of working on the project

Daunting task: Choir master Cat Southall has revelled in the challenge of working on the project

‘Everyone says I’m the female Gareth Malone,’ she says.

‘I think he is wonderful, though our dress sense is very different!’

Cat, who previously ran community choirs, says that preparing the Big C group for their big performance was a daunting task.

‘To get a group of non-singers to performance standard is hard enough — but knowing we were bound for the Albert Hall was terrifying,’ she says.

‘I won’t lie — the first rehearsal was pretty bad. Afterwards I thought: “I have my work cut out here.” ’

The choir also picked up some pointers from the People’s Tenor, Russell Watson, who has been receiving treatment for brain cancer since 2006.

Watching the singers arrive for rehearsal is sobering, not least because several have come straight from chemo sessions.

And what is striking — and chillingly
indicative of how indiscriminately the disease strikes — is how broad is
the range of choir members.

The ranks include a midwife, recruitment consultant, French teacher and TV weather girl.

One
member is professional footballer Chris Todd, who says: ‘I’m not the
type of person you’d expect to find in a “cancer choir”. But then, who
is’

A few years ago,
before his diagnosis, he would have laughed at the prospect of turning
up for weekly singing practice ‘with a load of middle-aged women in
headscarves, talking about wigs’, as he puts it.

‘It just wouldn’t have been a part of my world then. I would have been worried about what the lads thought.

‘In those days it was all about fast cars and stylish clothes. Singing in a choir just wouldn’t have been on my radar.’

Chris was 27, playing for Torquay United and the father of a young daughter when he was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2008.

But he was one of the lucky ones and is in remission — a word he describes as ‘the one every cancer patient wants to hear, and when you do it’s better than winning the lottery’.

He is still playing football — for Forest Green Rovers in Devon — his daughter Amelya is nearly five, and his wife is expecting a baby any day now. This is despite doctors telling him he’d probably not be able to have more children after his treatment.

So why did Chris join the Big C choir, with all its ‘middle-aged women in headscarves’

‘I had this need to connect with people who had been through the same thing,’ he says. ‘It’s not macho to admit it, but when you have cancer, your whole world gets turned upside down, and the things that mattered before to you aren’t as important.

Libby Heal is a member of the Big C Choir

Angela Davies is a member of the Big C Choir

Motivation: Choir members Libby Heal, left, and Angela Davies, right, have found joining the group an inspiration

‘I regard my life before as quite superficial. And the singing itself lifts you in a way that nothing else can.’

Fellow member Angela Davies, 51, says the weekly Big C rehearsal is her ‘drug fix’, adding with a laugh: ‘Believe me, after the past few years, I know all about drugs.’

She also credits the choir with saving her sanity and even giving her the strength to get out of bed some days.

Angela has been given a terminal diagnosis, but you wouldn’t ever know it from her attitude.

‘When I was told I had breast cancer, I was the chief carer for my parents,’ she says. ‘My mum had dementia and my Dad had Parkinson’s disease. I had a teenage son. Then came this diagnosis.

People say it drops into your life like a bomb, and that is what it feels like. All I could think of was: “So many people are relying on me, how can I not be here”

‘Someone suggested that I needed to do something to lift my mind for an evening a week — and would I like to get involved in this choir

‘I thought they were insane, but my husband and son forced me to get in the car, and they came, too. It was the best thing I’ve ever done.

“From then on, those two hours a week were like my sanctuary. Having to concentrate on something — anything — other than the cancer and hospital appointments, and fretting about what might come tomorrow, is incredibly liberating.

‘Even on chemo days, when all you really want to do is get home and go to bed, I’d drag myself along. I came to live for choir practice.’ Angela, who lives in Caerphilly, firmly believes it was the choir that stopped her from meekly accepting the devastating prognosis she was given.

‘When you are told you are not going to make it, you can do one of two things — curl up and die or refuse to accept it and fight. I chose the latter,’ she says.

‘I’m honestly not sure I’d have been able to do it without the choir, though. Cancer is an incredibly isolating thing. Your world shrinks suddenly, becoming just about hospital appointments.

‘It’s hard to connect with people, hard to feel part of life. It sounds corny, but being in the choir made me belong.

‘I want to live. I am determined to live. Or, as I put it some days, I want to avoid the temptation to die. And each song I can belt out reminds me of what is still possible.’

Quite what Bon Jovi would make of the Big C’s version of their hit It’s My Life is uncertain, but it will probably make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck — not least because of the line: ‘I ain’t gonna live forever, I just want to live while I’m alive.’

Emotional: 14-year-old Katie Whitcombe's performance brought a tear to her mother's eye

Emotional: 14-year-old Katie Whitcombe's performance brought a tear to her mother's eye

Singer Rowena Kincaid, who was 33 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, says she was often in tears during rehearsals.

‘This will sound mad to some people, but when I sing some of the lyrics I start to cry. The Katy Perry song Firework — which is our big one — has a line that goes: “Do you know there’s still a chance for you, cause there’s a spark in you”

‘Anyone who has sat in a doctor’s surgery and heard the word “cancer” will get that,’ she says.

Rowena is well into her recovery, but she says the disease has changed her. She used to work quietly behind a camera in the BBC Wales newsroom. Now, she says with a grin, she presents the weather, too.

‘I’d always fancied having a go, but never had the confidence,’ she says. ‘Cancer changed that. It made me realise that life is too short not to push yourself forward — so I did.’

The personal stories of the choir members are inspiring, but can also be unbearably hard to hear.

Katie, a 14-year-old from Aber dare, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008. Though she is doing well, her liver has been irreparably damaged and she will need a transplant.

Little wonder that her mother June had tears rolling down her face when Katie performed at the Albert Hall.

June says: ‘The choir has given Katie something to live for — it’s as simple as that. It has been a focus, a routine, a goal.

‘She missed so much school that she didn’t have a lot of friends. She can’t play sport, so she was finding it difficult to join in.

‘Now she has all these people around her who are just willing her on. You can see her confidence growing week by week.’

You cannot accuse any of these people of being downbeat. They are quite the opposite, in fact.

They joke about everything from what names they have given their cancer tumours — 13-year-old Libby Heal has opted for ‘Trevor’, for instance — to their relationships with their doctors.

‘I jumped up and hugged mine when he said “all clear”,’ says Sian Gaskin, 52. ‘I was naked on my top half and, since it was post-surgery, it wasn’t pleasant.’

Such is the bond between Big C members that the choir is still going, even though the cameras have stopped rolling.

But it’s hard for any of the members to pinpoint exactly why the choir is different from ordinary support groups.

‘I wouldn’t be the sort to sit around in a circle talking about my feelings,’ says Laura Cooper.

‘But letting it all out through music just works.

‘When I come out from a rehearsal I feel alive, and when you are living with cancer you need to be reminded what that feels like.’