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In The 'Shout At Cancer Choir,' No Voice Boxes Needed To Sing Out

The Shout at Cancer choir, pictured above in 2018, is featured in Bill Brummel's new documentary,<em> Can You Hear My Voice?</em>
The Shout at Cancer choir, pictured above in 2018, is featured in Bill Brummel's new documentary,<em> Can You Hear My Voice?</em>

There are no velvety-voiced crooners in the Shout at Cancer choir. All the singers have undergone laryngectomies — voice box removal — to treat cancer. The new documentary Can You Hear My Voice? profiles this unique U.K. choral group.

The choir is the brainchild of Dr. Thomas Moors, an ear nose and throat specialist and life-long singer. Moors is executive director of Shout at Cancer, a London-based support and rehab group for laryngectomy patients.

Moors remembers that when he first came up with the idea for the choir, it was met with laughter, surprise and disbelief.

"It just seemed ridiculous that he would expect a group of people with no voice boxes to stand up and sing in a choir," explains Sara Bowden-Evans, one of a handful of choir members who shared their personal cancer journey with Pasadena filmmaker Bill Brummel — himself a laryngectomy patient. The Peabody award-winning and Emmy-nominated documentarian lost his voice box in 2016.

Radiation treatment for tonsil cancer years ago caused scar tissue to build inside Brummel's windpipe. The laryngectomy saved his life, but he can no longer laugh out loud and his vocal range and pitch are severely diminished.

"I couldn't imagine how I would work after laryngectomy — I couldn't imagine walking around in public with a hole in my neck," Brummel says.

The laryngectomy procedure leaves cancer survivors breathing through a surgically created hole in the front of the neck. And they require a voice prosthesis to speak.

"The voice is a really essential part of who we are and how we express ourselves," says Lizz Summers, a speech and language therapist for Shout at Cancer. "And there's an enormous sense of loss that can occur when somebody loses their natural voice or the voice they had before."

"It alters so many basic human functions," Brummel says.

Speaking through the tiny implanted voice valve requires a lot more breath than normal speech. Singing builds lung strength — and performing builds confidence.

Can You Hear My Voice? won an audience award at the 2020 Nashville Film Festival; its next showing is in May at the RiverRun International Film Festival in North Carolina. The film crescendos with a concert at the London Tabernacle Theatre. Dr. Thomas Moors gives the choir a last-minute pep talk as they walk onstage. The evening also features moving poetry written by choir members, and a light-hearted kazoo number along with the group's renditions of popular songs.

Choir member Andrew Beaumont says the group helped him find meaning in the midst of his cancer journey. "Instead of wondering whether my life would continue, I would think: Well, why the hell shouldn't it continue?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.