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Medicinal purposes

Carolyn O'Grady reports on how the latest ICT and music technology is helping to improve the lives of teenagers with cancer

Middlesex Hospital in London is a good location for a Teenage Cancer Unit, say many of the teenage patients, because they can head off for a spot of retail therapy on Oxford Street. Of course they'd rather not be in the unit at all. But, given that time in hospital is necessary, what these young people want while they are there is to be treated as teenagers - as well as receive the best medical treatment. And shopping on Oxford Street is definitely part of that.

This is a fact that Teenage Cancer Trust, which funded the unit, has long recognised. The charity raises money to set up specialist teenage units in NHS hospitals, so that teenagers can be with their peers. It also seeks to equip the units with the kind of technology teenagers love: laptops, DVDs and, most recently, musical production equipment which will enable the young patients to play and record their own music.

Laura Warboys, aged 14, has spent nearly four of the last six months in the Middlesex Hospital 10-bed unit and is currently undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment. She remembers with horror the time spent at her local hospital before she came to the unit. "There were pink and purple spotty dogs on all the wards' walls and rocking horses and such like," she says. "At night the babies would scream."

Of course, travelling to and from the unit has been a problem for her and her mum, and her friends couldn't visit easily, but she would "still much rather be here".

While at the unit, Susie Clothier, the energetic activities co-ordinator, has arranged for Laura to go to pop concerts, including a trip to see Westlife. Laura has also been involved in acting and cooking and has been paid visits by boy band Blue.

"In some hospitals, once you are in bed you're stuck," states Laura's mother Shirley. "But here at the Middlesex they realise you still want to live your life."

Not everyone, of course, feels able to leave the Teenage Cancer Unit. Keith Boldeau, a lanky 16-year-old, recently came from Trinidad with his mother Cheryl. He's got bone cancer and is having chemotherapy most of the time, which causes him a lot of pain and saps his energy. "No," he says, "I didn't feel like going out."

What he has been doing, however, is playing with the latest addition to the unit: a music production system donated by Yamaha, which, after a pilot testing at the Middlesex, will be installed in all the units. The set-up will enable every patient, even those with no musical experience, to create and record their own sounds.

"This project combines educational, therapeutic and social benefits," explains Simon Davies, Teenage Cancer Trust's chief executive. "The charity tries to provide a teenage environment in which patients can feel relaxed and thereby have more confidence to tackle their illness."

Keith has just started to play around with the system, but has already seen the potential. "It's like a small DJ system," he says, and he's planning to make his own CDs for himself and perhaps his family and friends.

The equipment is essentially the basic music production equipment found in recording studios and radio stations, with which you can create any genre of music. It includes a keyboard, which plays a variety of musical instrumental sounds, and a sampler, which produces sounds that can be manipulated in terms of timbre, pitch and tempo.

Although the equipment is relatively easy to use, a Yamaha support worker visits once a month to help and encourage the young people. The company, in collaboration with teachers and patients, is also working on a "How to" book to explain the equipment and suggest ideas. Eventually an internet connection will be provided so teenagers in different units can write music together.

"Keith had just started chemo when the equipment was introduced," recalls Cheryl Boldeau. "Normally he would have shown signs of feeling rotten by then and retreated into himself, but it kept him interested. The equipment's a distraction from the illness."

* Young sufferers

* 1 in 330 boys and 1 in 420 girls develop cancer before they reach the age of 20.

* Cancer is the most common cause of death among young people after accidents.

* Osteosarcoma (bone cancer) affects teenagers more than any other age group.

* While recovery rates for children with cancer have improved (due to concentration of care and expertise) those for adolescents have not.

* The Trust

The Teenage Cancer Trust's main work is to set up specialist hospital units for young people with cancer and related diseases all over the UK. These provide a positive environment with full support, appropriate recreational facilities, non-uniformed nurses and a snack-filled kitchen. The teenagers can also continue their education. The result, it is estimated by cancer specialists, is a 15 per cent increase in recovery rates.

Seven Teenage Cancer Units have already been designed and built in London (2), Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Leeds and Sheffield. The charity's target is 20 units so that every teenager with cancer will have access to these facilities.

The Trust also provides a network of support and information services for teenage patients, their families, schools, hospitals and medical staff. Last year it launched the first "Find Your Sense of Tumour" national conference for teenagers and young adults with cancer, which seeks to bring together cancer specialist, nurses social workers, Department of Health representatives and teenage patients. A second conference took place last month at Center Parcs in Nottingham.

To contact the Trust write to: Teenage Cancer Trust, 38 Warren Street, London W1T 6AE. Tel: 020 7387 1000. * The equipment

Yamaha has donated the following equipment to the Teenage Cancer Unit: SU200 sampler, RM1X sequence remixer, PSR2000 keyboards, speakers, AW16G audio workstation (yet to be installed) and headphones.

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