Hervey Bay’s Soul Sisters ‘boob choir’ provides music therapy to women impacted by breast cancer

Hervey Bay’s Soul Sisters ‘boob choir’ provides music therapy to women impacted by breast cancer
  • PublishedDecember 16, 2023

Twila Whittingham always thought of music as medicine, so when doctors found a pre-cancerous tumour in her breast mid-2022, she knew she would need more than conventional treatment to cope.

So, she formed what she cheekily describes as a “boob choir” — an ensemble of women whose lives have been impacted by the disease.

“I want people to get together and sing because it’s so good for your soul, and that’s why we’re called The Soul Sisters,” Ms Whittingham said.

A woman sitting on a bench outside a brick building smiles.
Twila Whittingham formed the group to provide music therapy to people impacted by breast cancer.(ABC Wide Bay: Lucy Loram)

Once a week, up to 35 women gather in Hervey Bay, three hours north of Brisbane, to rehearse the classics — ABBA, Leonard Cohen and, at this time of year, Christmas carols.

While they focus on their sheet music, they’re also working through something bigger.

“The intention was to create therapy with music,” Ms Whittingham said.

“It is medication, it does make a difference. It makes a difference to the ones that are having depression.

“I always wanted to be a music therapist, but the time is ticking away, so I’m not going to have time to go through the whole study aspect … but you know what? This is music therapy.”

A group of women in pink headbands and white shirts sing.
The Soul Sisters have been rehearsing and performing songs for more than a year.(ABC Wide Bay: Lucy Loram)

Music as therapy

As Margie Maassen neared the end of her chemotherapy treatments a few months ago, she said The Soul Sisters rehearsals were a light at the end of the tunnel.

“Every second rehearsal is straight after my chemo … [the treatment] knocks you off your feet, but I force myself to come,” she said.

“Once I get here, the pain disappears … it takes any stress and tension away … you just feel love.”

A woman in glasses stands in a church.
Margie Maassen says the music has been a welcome distraction from her breast cancer treatments.(ABC Wide Bay: Lucy Loram)

This sisterhood even helped Ms Maaseen come to terms with her breast cancer diagnosis.

“They help you to live fearlessly and just get on with your life,” she said.

“I would have never met these wonderful ladies if I didn’t have cancer, that’s just great for my mindset … and I’m going to stay with them forever.”

Friendships formed

When Gayle Searle was told about The Soul Sisters by a breast cancer nurse at the McGrath Foundation last year, it felt like divine intervention.

“When I was diagnosed last year, I was actually praying and I said to God, ‘Can you please bring something to me? Because I really need something’ and along came the choir,” she said.

Like many women in the group, Ms Searle joined for the music, but she stayed for the friendships.

“Whether you can sing or not, the importance is just getting with a group of women that actually can be with you and support you… and I suppose, take you to the next level really and continue to enjoy your life,” she said.

“You don’t focus on yourself; you focus on other people.”

Rising diagnosis rates

The Soul Sisters perform anywhere from retirement homes to local cafes.

The CEO of the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF), Cleola Anderiesz, said while the women were spreading joy through song, they were also spreading awareness about a disease effecting more Australians each year.

About one in seven women in Australia will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and one in 500 men, according to the NBCF.

A group of women singing.
The Soul Sisters choir is made up of around 30 women who get together once a week to rehearse.(ABC Wide Bay: Lucy Loram)

Diagnoses have increased by 21 per cent in the past 10 years, but death rates have declined by about 40 per cent since the NBCF formed in 1994.

That’s largely thanks to research, early detection and better treatments.

“Early detection gives us one of the best possible chances of survival,” Ms Anderiesz said.

“The earlier a cancer is discovered, the greater the number of treatment options that are available and the better the prognosis.”

Life before and after breast cancer

For singers like Penny Kilner, the “boob choir” was a way back into what was once a favourite pastime.

She has been with The Soul Sisters since their first rehearsal in 2022.

“Like a zillion years ago, I sang in choirs and church choirs, that sort of stuff, and then didn’t sing for 60 years,” Ms Kilner said.

“When this came along, I wanted to get back into singing and this is just joy.”

women singing in a choir
The Soul Sisters want to inspire others going through breast cancer treatment.(ABC Wide Bay: Lucy Loram)

But for all members, the group has provided hope as they navigated treatment and supported each other through recovery and setbacks.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *