Living with cancer is one of the hardest experiences a person can go through. Voices of Hope is a local choir composed of people living with cancer, who have made the choice to focus on life and healing despite illness.
“The people who come here are often self-aware, positive people, who want to help themselves,” says Ginette Quintal-Solomon, one of the volunteers and founders of the choir. “They know that time is precious and they want to make the best of what’s left. They are extraordinary. I learn how to cope from them.”
The choir rehearses once a week for two hours at the Wellness Centre in the heart of Côte-des-Neiges. The choir usually has between 20 to 25 members from various cultures any given year. One of the volunteers, Michèle Hekimi, is trained at a music conservatory in Geneva as a professional singer. “To share my knowledge with the choir is important to me,” she says. There are no auditions, so some members come with experience, while others do not. Everyone is welcome. “We’re such a cohesive group—it’s marvelous,” says Nina Cass, 92, the oldest member of the choir.
Voices of Hope started over six years ago when Quintal-Solomon, a lawyer by profession and trained singer, proposed to establish a choir at Hope & Cope, an organization that provides support to cancer survivors and their families. It was a dream come true for Suzanne O’Brien, Hope & Cope’s Executive Director, who had long wished to have a choir at the Wellness Centre. After receiving O’Brien’s blessing, Quintal Solomon asked Vincenzo Guzzo, a trumpet player, to join as the choir director and Michèle Hekimi as a soprano soloist. All three together started the choir, and to their great delight, were joined by MusicaCamerata’s co-founder and pianist, Berta Rosenohl, who volunteers her time and talent as an accompanist. “We are so lucky to have Berta,” says Guzzo. “There are better choirs who have less accomplished piano accompanist working for them.”
Voices of Hope choir performs two concerts a year: in December and in June. They learn completely new songs for each concert with one exception; they always sing their theme song, I Have a Dream, by ABBA. Choir director, Guzzo, hopes they can produce a studio-quality album one day that reflects the diversity of its choir members and showcases its best songs.
Presently, the choir only has female choristers, but men are invited. To fill the void, the choir hires four male singers from the Opéra de Montréal to join them for their concerts. When asked what he considers the highlights of working with the choir, Guzzo replies without hesitation: the shows! He loves to see the progress the choir makes after months of rehearsing.
Over three hundred people usually attend these concerts, and proceeds from ticket sales go to Hope & Cope. The concerts include solo performances by volunteers and special guests, including the great Montreal baritone Gino Quilico who has performed with Voices of Hope for the past three years.
Membership is in constant flux— some choir members return to work after finishing their treatments and leave the choir. Some pass away. Others have been there since the beginning. “Choristers can stay for as along as they want,” says Guzzo. “If they come when they’re sick, they can come when they’re healthy.” Having lost his own wife to cancer, Guzzo feels a strong connection to these women, as does Quintal-Solomon, who has also lost loved ones to cancer, and Hekimi, who is herself a cancer survivor.
Pierrette Lamothe is grateful to be a part of the choir. Several years ago, when one of her friends was fighting breast cancer, she discovered Hope & Cope and told her friend about it. Little did she know a couple years later, she herself would be coming to Hope & Cope for support.
Lamothe says that chemotherapy and surgery affected her respiratory system and vocal chords. Some survivors say their voices are permanently changed. Guzzo admits he had to adjust and be more patient as a choir director. Although-Quintal Solomon agrees it is sometimes a challenge for the choir to sound the way it should, she says it is still possible to make beautiful music. “It’s about making music from the heart. That’s what makes it beautiful and satisfying,” says Quintal-Solomon. “It’s not the beauty of the voice. There are many well-known singers who did not have particularly beautiful voices, but they touched people by putting emotion and heart into their singing.”
Lamothe says singing has helped her a lot. “Singing not only lifts up my spirit, but it also helps my breathing. I can hold my breath much longer now, whereas before, I was short of breath all the time.” Quintal-Solomon also extols the benefits of singing: “Sound is vibration, and vibration is powerful. Since our human body is mainly made of water, which is a particularly good conductor for vibration, singing reaches every cell of our body and our heart. ”
Voices of Hope choir is one of many activities offered at Hope & Cope’s Wellness Centre, also known as "Lou's House." Founded in 1981 as an adjunct to the Jewish General Hospital’s Oncology Department, Hope & Cope quickly grew to play a vital role and integral part of the hospital and in the lives of patients and their caregivers.
When its founder, Sheila Kussner, O.C., O.Q., a philanthropist and pioneer in cancer care, first conceived of offering peer support within a hospital setting, there was nothing like it at the time. Having experienced the effects of cancer herself and witnessed them in others, Kussner wanted to respond to the needs she saw by providing more support, especially to those with few resources. Her impact on cancer care lies in her ability to inspire others. She believes that no need or person is too small to meet 100%.
Through perseverance and determination, Kussner gained the trust and confidence of those in the medical field for what she was proposing: the idea that a more personalized, complete and human approach to cancer treatment at all stages has value and is important for the wellbeing of patients. No amount of red tape has held her volunteer organization back from achieving once unconceivable things in a hospital. As a result, the hospital is no longer just a place where patients go for treatments, but it is also a place of friendship and comfort.
With the support of donors, Hope & Cope officially opened a second location called the Wellness Centre in 2007 for anyone affected by cancer in the Greater Montreal Area. It’s located outside the hospital setting, but close to the Jewish General Hospital (JGH) in a completely renovated residential building on Côte St-Catherine Road just west of Lavoie Street. As a hospital-affiliated cancer centre, it is the first of its kind in Quebec.
The Wellness Centre offers a free, bilingual program with over 30 different activities from support groups, lectures, workshops, art therapy, nutrition, and exercise classes to more specialized services such as CancerFightClub, an interactive website and online community for young adults (18-35), and ActivOnco, an oncology exercise rehabilitation program.
Hope & Cope also provides practical help with transportation and parking passes; a Compassionate Fund to help families pay for groceries, school supplies, daycare and summer camps; even gifts are donated to palliative patients for them to give their loved ones on holidays.
A lot of the work is done by volunteers who have personally been affected by cancer, either themselves or a loved one. Alice Lehrer, a retired occupational therapist facilitates a walk on Mount-Royal every Thursday morning at 10am for those who are mourning the loss of a loved one.
Hope & Cope is affiliated with the Jewish General Hospital, and a partner with many other health care networks, but it remains an independent organization, completely run by volunteers and fully supported by donors and benefactors to offer all their services for free to cancer patients and their families.
Hope & Cope now serves as an international model in cancer care. In 1990, it became the first volunteer-based organization in Canada to conduct scientific, peer-reviewed research, which it has presented at international conferences and published in medical journals. With approximately 20 full and part-time professionals and almost 500 volunteers, Hope & Cope has built partnerships with other local organizations also committed to cancer care, including the Rossy Cancer Network, CURE foundation, Abbott Nutrition, and Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation.
In 2008, Hope & Cope announced the establishment of the Christine and Herschel Victor Hope & Cope Chair in Psychosocial Oncology at McGill University, where they hope to push their research and impact even further.