Progressive medical practitioners around the globe are tackling cancer treatment and prevention by integrating alternative healing modalities with standard practices. This is linked to the broadening recognition that in order for the body to heal, the mind and spirit must be addressed alongside the physical. Doctors who reject this approach are lagging behind.
Alice Billman, the founder of Heroines Choir, a group of 12 breast-cancer survivors and their supporters who perform choreographed song routines across Florida to audiences of up to 30,000 people, believes that in Florida the medical sector has been too slow in accepting the mind-body-spirit connection. Billman, a New York native who set up shop in Miami years ago, runs both a Chinese arts facility called Kung Fu Connection and a non-profit, Heroes Unite, an art-based initiative set up to empower special-needs populations. At the core of both operations is the principle that the arts transform lives and create opportunities for healing.
The Heroines Choir was formed in 2011 under Heroes Unite’s umbrella. Its objectives are to facilitate wellness through singing and to establish a life-affirming sisterhood that teaches women to thrive in spite of their adversities. Weekly rehearsals commence with chi gung, a Chinese meditative exercise, and other meditation practices.
Given the thousands of survivors and their supporters who will turn out for the Oct. 18 Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Bayfront Park, Billman, 54, is disappointed with the low level of participation in the choir — especially during this, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “There’s such a great need for this that I thought once we got started, it would just blow up,” she says. She believes that if the project were launched elsewhere, the membership and support would have been huge.
She’s probably right. In other states, where there’s a culture of both civil society and citizen investment in sustainable methods to address public issues, Heroines Unite may well be a greater success. These communities have adopted approaches to disease control that promote more than just pill popping. Nutrition, exercise, stress-reduction techniques — and even trauma and art therapy — are viewed as equally important.
After a couple hours of rehearsal, choir members are visibly more at ease. One woman entered the studio barely speaking, hunched over and timid. By the end, her shoulders were flung back, chest high and eyes bright. The therapeutic effects are immediately recognizable.
According to Marilyn Van Houten, a registered nurse in her 60s, that’s only a smidgen of how the program has helped survivors heal. Van Houten is a nine-year-triple-negative breast-cancer survivor. She says that post-treatment she began seeking alternative therapies to help build her immune system and fight a possible reemergence. Since joining the Heroines Choir, doctors have watched her white blood-cell count rise steadily.
She is adamant that the choir has helped heal her. Nadine Rosario, 45 and also a triple-negative breast-cancer survivor, has been with the choir since its inception. “This is like my second family”, she says. “I feel like I am truly understood by these women. And, the chi gung teaches us to be in the moment and genuinely take care of ourselves. This has boosted my self-esteem and made me feel like I’m able to accomplish anything.” Rosario’s cancer is in remission, and she believes that the choir has helped restore her physical and mental wellness.
Billman, who says she has seen diagnoses reversed and doctors take women off of medications, is certain that the choir has a curative effect. To prove this, her next mission is to enlist scientific documentation of the medical benefits of singing for breast cancer survivors. She hopes this will help garner funding support and foster greater openness to integrative approaches within the medical community. “It has been a struggle to get funding. They don’t know where to fit us. Although some of the younger doctors get what we are doing, the older ones, who also happen to be the decision-makers, just don’t understand,” she says.
While tech and entrepreneurship funding and support — absolutely necessary, of course! — continue to balloon in South Florida, the drive to keep our community healthy should not be left behind. Not only should we support traditional medical projects, but also initiatives that take innovative and unique approaches to therapy, stress reduction and whole-body wellness.
When the results can be a more-vibrant and healthier community, investment could reap huge dividends.
Kinisha Correia is a blogger and writer based in Broward County. She writes about social development, yoga and wellness.