Music lessons for children with cancer in Myanmar

Graeme Abernethy is a music teacher at Dulwich College International, who has been providing music sessions at the Heroes School in the cancer unit of Yangon Children’s Hospital for the past few months. He spoke to us about his experiences at the school:

“The unit at the hospital is supported by World Child Cancer and provides desperately needed oncological treatment for children living in lower Myanmar. The school is a small classroom off one of the wards with classes taking place on weekday afternoons. These are run by a cohort of dedicated and enthusiastic local teachers.

The classes consist of children from around five years old to those in their early teens, all of whom are undergoing various cancer therapies but who are nevertheless mobile and fit enough to take part in school type activities. Each time I visit the hospital, the faces change as children finish their courses of treatment and return home.

My sessions consist of a mixture of singing and movement activities and we also do some playing on instruments I take with me. The children receive lessons in basic English from the teachers so when I arrived for the first time I was delighted to find that the school already had a short repertoire of children’s songs in English. Not that the language barrier is ever a problem; the musical and movement activities are generally led non-verbally and where translation is needed, the local staff are on hand to provide it. When I introduce new English language songs most of the children pick up the words very quickly and they take delight in using their new vocabulary.

The eagerness and engagement of the children astounds me every time I see them. Their positivity and resilience in the face of enormously difficult circumstances and uncertain futures is overwhelming. In one session a boy who must have been around 12 years old had recently undergone a leg amputation and had not yet received a prosthetic limb.  No child could have shown more enthusiasm for movement activities than him as he joined in joyously, supporting himself with a crutch.

In general, the little classroom provides a temporary calm haven from the hospital environment and gives the children the opportunity to focus on something other than the reasons which have brought them there in the first place. Nevertheless, there are constant reminders of reality. Many of the children have lost their hair as a result of their treatment, many attend classes with cannulas attached to their hands for the administration of drugs and during every session, one or two children will be collected for their next dose of chemotherapy.

Every time I visit the school, I’m caught up in a whirlwind of smiles and laughter with the sessions seeming to pass very quickly. And every time I leave the hospital, I’m extremely aware that the experience of working there is humbling and deeply life-affirming.”

The Heroes School, set up and supported by World Child Cancer, allows children to continue their education during their treatment, providing them with a much-needed break from their hospital beds and the constant reminder that they are unwell. The lessons provided by teachers at the school and volunteers, like Graeme, give the children something to look forward to, bringing positivity to the ward.