Choir-singing improves cancer patients' mental health

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Published: 11 Nov 2014
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Dr Ian Lewis - Tenovus, Cardiff, UK

Dr Lewis talks to ecancertv at NCRI 2014 about the therapeutic benefits brought about by singing in a choir, based on research carried out on participants of Tenovus-initiated choirs in Wales.

At Tenovus for a number of years now we’ve been running choirs for cancer patients as an alternative, really, to a traditional support group. Actually several conferences ago I was sat here talking to Gordon in a tuxedo and that was because we brought our first pilot choir to the conference to perform and actually open the entire conference which was great, a great experience. Back then we had just the one choir but even from that project we had some statistically significant improvements in a whole range of psychological and psychosocial measures. What we were able to do from the findings of that study was actually secure £1 million of lottery funding and that has enabled us to not just roll out fifteen choirs which we have today but also build a sustainable model and, on top of that, of course do some really interesting research about the benefits of participation in music, its effect on your health and actually we’re finding some really exciting results now.

So what we presented on Tuesday is an update, really, of the research that we’ve been doing for the last 2½ years. It’s not the final story yet; the final project, which has been going on for 2½ years but is actually a 3 year project, will be finishing around May/June time next year. But what we have so far is about 250 or so people affected by cancer and that’s either as patients themselves, as carers, or as bereaved individuals and looked at the benefits for those people of participating in the choir. Now what we’ve seen already is that there are statistically significant improvements in a whole range of things such as a reduction of anxiety and depression but also an improvement in things like social function and overall mental health. The really exciting thing is that in a few months’ time we’ll have those numbers up to about 400-450 participants. So this will be one of the biggest cohorts of people in an arts and health intervention in the UK. What that’s going to allow us to do is really build a really credible case for this type of intervention being something that is routinely offered to patients and their families. What we're also going to be able to do is look at how this type of intervention affects patients, carers, bereaved, family members in different ways as well. We’ve been able to do that because we have this one unified model of delivering intervention, the way in which we run the actual choirs themselves, and also by having this one large project that overarches many different domains.

So at the moment the lottery funding is allowing us to roll out choirs just within Wales and that’s been great and we actually have a really large coverage of Wales now with about 950 participants, all affected by cancer, singing every single week which is just unbelievable. We are actually tentatively looking to venture into England and, for us, we’ve actually developed a model that is sustainable and scalable and could be adapted in any region. So we’re currently looking at that as an option at the moment.