Through the darkest days of her fight against breast cancer, a Darlington mother-of-two was able to find strength from a powerful, natural therapy – the sheer joy of singing. PETER BARRON reports

WHEN Claire Willmer stood on stage, singing her heart out as a princess in a hit musical, very few members of the audience could have guessed what she was going through.

Little did they know the mum-of-two was being treated for breast cancer.

She’d undergone a mastectomy, started intensive chemotherapy, and lost her hair. But she was determined to play her part in at least one of the performances of Shrek the Musical, produced by Darlington Operatic Society, in October 2022.

Claire had found out she’d landed the leading role of Princess Fiona four months earlier, a few days before she’d been given the devastating confirmation that she had cancer.

But despite doing her best to attend as many rehearsals as possible, she only had the strength to appear in the Saturday matinee of the 11-show run.

“Singing is part of my identity, it’s who I am, and I had to do at least one of those shows for my own mental health,” she recalls.

Fifteen months on from that uplifting display of courage, Claire is cancer-free, and feeling positive about the future, though she’s still on oral chemotherapy, along with bone and hormone treatment, and having regular blood checks.

Her dark curls are back, and she’s convinced her love of singing played “a massive part” in her recovery.

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“Along with all the care I had from the NHS, and the support from my family and friends, singing helped save me,” she smiles.

Now, Claire is telling her story for the first time because she wants to give hope to others undergoing cancer treatment, while also highlighting the therapeutic power of singing.

Indeed, she vividly remembers the moment singing became integral to her life. She was 12 or 13, and singing with classmates during a music lesson at Woodham Comprehensive, in Newton Aycliffe, when an “inspirational” teacher, Shelly Ambury, walked over and told her: “You’ve got a really good voice.”

“That was the start of it,” says Claire, who was born in Bishop Auckland. “I joined Shelly’s choir, and I’ve never stopped singing since.”

She took GCSE music, using her voice as her instrument, and wrote a song, called The Paths of Life, for her composition. Marked as ‘outstanding’, she was asked to perform it for the then prime minister, Tony Blair, when he was visiting the area.

After studying Performance at Northumbria University, Claire became a touring vocalist for Haven Holidays before working for a while as a solo artiste in pubs and clubs.

In 2011, she joined Darlington Operatic Society (DOS), and quickly established herself by taking the leading role in a succession of productions – one of her favourites being Deloris, in Sister Act.

“DOS surpassed all my expectations, not just for the amazing standard of its shows, but the camaraderie, and I’m proud to be part of something that enriches the community,” she says.

Claire also spent ten years as a singing teacher with Stagecoach Theatre Arts, in Darlington, and found an important mentor in principal, Trudy Hindmarsh. It was Trudy who gave Claire invaluable advice on setting up her own business, resulting in the launch of Voices of Darlington, in 2015.

From small beginnings, Voices of Darlington – described as “Darlington’s hub for all things singing and performance” – has gone on to become an award-winning community group, with around 230 members, performing at all kinds of events.

With her days filled with music, coupled with being a mum to Max and Zack, Claire’s life was full of joy – and then cancer struck.

She’d felt pain but nothing showed up during investigations. Then, five months later, while changing during a holiday, she noticed a small dent in her right breast. An ultrasound and biopsies followed and, this time, it was shown to be lobular cancer, which was also in her lymph nodes.

She underwent a full mastectomy on July 27, along with axillary node clearance, followed by intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Her treatment at Bishop Auckland General Hospital’s Mara Unit – where the staff are “absolute saints” – also included daily injections to boost her immunity, as well as steroids, and medication to help with the side effects.

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And, still, she continued to attend as many rehearsals as possible – singing through the pain – with her little boy, Max, helping her learn her lines at home.

“Cancer was taking so much of me, I just decided that it wasn’t going to take away a part of my life that meant so much – singing,” she explains.

She planned to do five shows but, suffering from a cold on top of fatigue and sickness, she ended up doing just a single show, with understudy, Ellen Dunbavin, stepping up brilliantly.

Until a month before the show, Claire’s illness had been kept secret from the rest of the cast, with director, Jo Hand, “moving heaven and earth” to make it possible for Claire to perform, including arranging private rehearsals.

“We agreed to focus on what we could do, for as long as we could, and not allow the diagnosis to define her,” says Jo.

“I've had many moments of enormous pride in my years with DOS, but watching Claire shine in that performance will always be a special memory.”

What Claire didn’t know that among those giving her a standing ovation was her oncologist, Dr Sophie Haney, who’d gone to the show unaware that her patient would be performing.

“I had no idea she was there until I went to my next appointment, and she said she’d seen me!” Claire recalls.

Now, despite feeling tired due to the ongoing treatment, Claire is rehearsing twice a week for the role of Trish in the next DOS production, Kinky Boots, which runs at the Hippodrome from May 1 to May 11.

“When you’re being treated for cancer, it’s all about medicine, but when I’m singing with DOS, or Voices of Darlington, I can forget about all that – I'm back to the normal Claire,” she says.

“My world needs to keep turning as normally as possible for my children. It’s important they see Mammy is happy because she’s doing what she loves.”

Rather than undermining her business, Claire’s illness has had a positive impact on Voices of Darlington because she had to bring in additional members of the team. That created more capacity and membership has doubled.

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And Friday morning sessions with the group – at All Saints Church, in Ravensdale Road – are free to anyone who’s had cancer.

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“Nobody’s cancer journey is the same, and I don’t want to sugar-coat it, because it’s hard, but I know better than ever that singing’s good for the soul,” says Claire.

“And, if I can play a princess who turns into a green ogre – while on chemotherapy – then maybe others going through a difficult time will see there are moments of light if they look for them.”

How fitting that one of the songs she sang in that show is called I Think I Got You Beat...