The Candy Girls: Breast cancer survivors using dance as therapy

The Candy Girls: Breast cancer survivors using dance as therapy

It’s a sunny Saturday and Billy Ray Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart is blaring from the boom box.

A group of women is shimmying their shoulders and swivelling their hips. Not all of them are moving in unison but they’re all flashing huge smiles as beads of sweat trickle down their foreheads.

“Hey you, this is your song! Get out here and dance!” commands instructor Yip Siew Fune to a tardy participant.

“Wait lah! I just arrived,” says the woman, cool as a Cheshire cat. “Let me catch my breath and change into my shoes first.”

More latecomers saunter in and quickly get into the groove as the cheery Yip yells out instructions and ups the intensity.

This is the scene every Saturday morning at Universiti Malaya’s Centrepoint.

Members of the all-female group called the Candy Girls Pink Dance Crew (Candy Girls) are not only ordinary aunties but breast cancer survivors and patients who use dance as a form of therapy.

Aged between 39 and 70, none of these women have prior dance training, and come from all ethnicities and walks of life.

Founder Yip, fondly called Sifu by the members, is herself a breast cancer survivor who turned to dance as a form of mental, emotional and physical therapy. A Latin dancer for more than 10 years, she put her passion on hold while seeking treatment in 2009.

“The treatment was mentally tough because a lot of people advised me on the dos and don’ts. I got depressed during my third cycle of chemotherapy and decided not to listen to anyone. I ate whatever I wanted and resumed dance classes – bald! Once I took charge of myself, I was happy. I then made a vow that I would teach dance when I recovered,” she remembers.

Her opportunity came a year later.

In 2010-2011, UM’s Faculty of Medicine via the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine carried out a study to examine the hypothesis that quality of life among breast cancer survivors is better in the qigong group than the placebo (aerobic i.e. line dancing) or usual care group.

Knowing Yip was a dance enthusiast and noting how she radiated positive energy, her doctor encouraged her to volunteer as an instructor, and spread the joy to those in the same predicament.

The research required subjects to participate in a 90-minute dance fitness class three times a week for eight weeks, under Yip’s guidance, as part of the alternative treatment method to accompany the usual prescribed cancer treatment modality such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and medications.

Once the research concluded, the group enjoyed the sessions so much they continued with classes and saw an increase in membership, which led to the formation of the Candy Girls, under the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre’s (UMMC) Breast Cancer Resource Centre. It became a registered organisation in 2014.

After joining Candy Girls, Jacqueline realised that medication wasnt the only answer for her woes.

Reaping the benefits

While there are many cancer support groups nationwide, Candy Girls is believed to be the first of its kind in Malaysia to use dance as a form of therapy.

Any form of movement acts as therapeutic tools that are as effective as medication and psychotherapy in alleviating issues pertaining to the body, mind and soul.

Yip, 55, says, “Latin would have been too difficult for the group so my mother taught me the Macarena and I used that in my first line dancing class. However, my first ‘real’ teacher was You Tube. The beginnings were difficult as I had to learn the steps, modify them and choose the music. I didn’t even know what a warm up and cool down was!”

Slowly, she got the hang of things. Not everyone has good rhythm so Yip keeps the steps simple. Among the dances members learn are modern dance, Bollywood, joget, line dancing and rock and roll. Zumba is also thrown into the mix.

“There are reasons for choosing Zumba and Bollywood dance. These types of dances help in cardiovascular exercises whereas joget helps in neuromuscular coordination. The cardiovascular endurance is enhanced as both dances incorporate small jumps and high impact movements, which affect breathing rate,” she explains.

Rohaini was initially hesitant about joining the group; now she can’t wait for the Saturday classes.

With improved blood circulation and the supply of oxygen to the cells, the endurance level increases, thus reducing physical and mental fatigue.

Yip also incorporates a lot of sensual, upper torso movements, which help tone the muscles around the breasts. These movements further boost the women’s self-confidence, particularly for patients who have undergone mastectomy and feel shy in presenting themselves because they lack a body part.

She encourages the women to include facial expressions during the dance to help connect their thoughts and feelings.

As their repertoire grew, so did their reputation. Suddenly, they were asked to perform at a cancer-related event. Nervous as they were, Candy Girls did a fabulous job and now do more than 40 performances a year. Every member is given the opportunity to act as leader to increase their confidence.

Yip says proudly, “The women have mastered the steps with patience and encouragement; they have also become more bold and open.”

Similar journey

When housewife Rohaini Abdul, 62, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she had no clue she was in for a turbulent ride.

“I only heard about cancer from television programmes and none of my family members were afflicted with it so I didn’t know what to expect,” she recalls.

Rohaini underwent a mastectomy and had to go through six cycles of chemotherapy and 15 sessions of radiotherapy. She felt sick and hopeless, but alas, no one could offer her comfort.

“I tried to contact friends but they didn’t know what to do. My husband and four children also didn’t understand the disease and were not able to provide emotional support. The doctor told me about this group and initially, I was scared to join though I like to dance.”

After a few sessions, the joy started creeping into Rohaini’s life and today, she is a picture of health and tries not to miss a class.

Candy GIrls Pink Dance Crew founder Yip, fondly called Sifu.

She says, “Dancing makes me forget my sickness. We have lost three members over the years and I miss them dearly. We all share our experiences, grieve together and support each other.”

Like Ruhaini, Rachel Tai was initially fearful about joining Candy Girls because she didn’t know if she could cope.

“In 2015, I felt a hardening near my breast and I thought it was a muscle because I did a lot of weightlifting then. I went for an ultrasound and was shocked to find out I had stage 3 breast cancer.

“In hindsight, I was feeling tired six months prior to the diagnosis. Some friends also think it was a result of stress and accumulated grief from my husband’s passing more than 10 years ago,” shares the supply chain manager.

After completing treatment, Tai, 51, was looking to reach out to other survivors, Googled and found the group.

“Sifu is so inspirational and reminds us that we are not here to compete. We are all on the same journey and can relate to each other,” says Tai, who also performs whenever she can.

Unlike other cancer patients, Jacqueline Sammy, 52, found lumps in both breasts and went into depression.

She says, “In my early 20s, my nipples would bleed whenever I was stressed or carried heavy things. I would have to wear a pad to stop the bleeding. All checks proved nothing was wrong, although a lot of times, I didn’t feel right. I continued going for check-ups and it was a nightmare to be told I had cancer in 2009.”

Jacqueline usually doesn’t pick up calls from unknown numbers but one day, she did. It was a call asking her to participate in an exercise programme for a research.

“I hate exercise!” Jacqueline exclaims. “The caller told me it was dance, and I like dancing. I went and stuck to it. By nature, I’m a reserved person but I realised it’s best not to bottle up emotions.

“Many of the women have become my good friends and the dancing has helped with my personal relationships. Medication is not everything.”

Despite having members of a more mature group, Candy Girls has become a symbol of fitness, hope and health through their energetic dance routines and encouraging smiles. They rise above the challenges of facing breast cancer, a disease that consumes their lives and that of their loved ones.

There is a reason behind the group’s name.

“Candy (from cotton candy) signifies something that is sweet – like a kind, loving woman; its stickiness signifies a community that shares a close bond; and pink signifies someone who is always young at heart since most young girls like the colour pink,” says Yip.

With the theme, “One Team, One Goal, One Spirit”, Yip and her Candy Girls are on a crusade to give back cancer survivors their self-worth.

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