Rock Band of Gynecologic Oncologists Connects with Patients Through Music
“No evidence of disease.”
This simple phrase may not mean much to the average person, but for oncologists and the patients they treat, it’s cause for celebration.
The phrase, often abbreviated as N.E.D., is commonly written on a patient’s chart to signify that he or she has achieved remission.
It is also the name of a unique rock band made up of six gynecologic oncology surgeons, who have raised over $500,000, been the subject of an award-winning documentary and released three studio albums of original music—all to spread awareness of cervical, ovarian, uterine/endometrial, vaginal, vulvar and other gynecologic cancers.
“A lot of our patients feel they are overshadowed by the sister cancer, breast cancer, which gets so much attention,” said William Winter, M.D., gynecologic oncologist at Compass Oncology, and a guitarist for N.E.D. “We want to be their voice; we want to amplify them.”
The group began in 2008, when Winter and Nimesh Nagarsheth, M.D., a gynecological oncologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center and Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, were approached by G. Larry Maxwell, M.D., a mutual friend of theirs and a leader in their field, to put together a musical show for the upcoming Society of Gynecologic Oncology meeting. Excited by the idea, Winter and Nagarsheth, who plays the drums, reached out to a few friends and colleagues who also played instruments, and quickly formed a band. After a day of rehearsal together, the newly formed group performed a two-hour set of cover songs at the event. The concert went better than expected, said Nagarsheth.
“We played and had a great time, and we basically brought down the house,” he said.
Word of the group’s success quickly spread, and soon they were invited to play at numerous industry conferences across the country. Then, an unexpected invitation came from political leaders asking them to perform in Washington D.C. as part of a gynecologic cancer awareness event the following year.
“They suggested to us that it would be a great way to promote women’s gynecologic awareness,” said Nagarsheth. “We liked that idea, but we thought that going to Washington D.C. and playing cover songs would be kind of silly.”
So the group began writing original songs, working together on lyrics and music, despite living all across the country. Soon they had created and perfected six songs, inspired by their own experiences as gynecological oncologists, and were ready to perform in Washington D.C. It was a big accomplishment, but the musician-doctors had even bigger dreams—recording an album to raise money and spread awareness of their cause.
Nagarsheth, who is based in New York City, took on the task of securing them a record deal. He set out, knocking on the door of record label Motema Music every day for months until the president of the label agreed to meet with him.
“They thought I was crazy,” said Nagarsheth. “They said, ‘we don’t really want to waste your time and that doesn’t seem like something we would do, but you’ve been so persistent we’ll meet with you. We met with them and literally walked out with a record deal with this concept that we would put together an album for charity and they would help us do it.”
The label connected them with Grammy award-winning music producer Mario McNulty, who has worked with David Bowie, Prince, Nine Inch Nails and other big musical acts. The band spent four “music bootcamp” weekends rehearsing with and learning from McNulty before recording their first album, “No Evidence of Disease,” over the course of five days. It was released in Sept. 2009.
“It was a crazy experience,” said Winter. “We went to some great studios. Tony Bennett even donated his studio time for two days.”
The group then began touring, playing shows and fundraisers, and attracting a growing base of fans who have been touched by gynecologic cancers. Eventually they caught the attention of Andrea Kalin, the founder of Spark Media, who was interested in making a documentary film about N.E.D. Her team followed the group from 2009 to 2011, releasing the film “No Evidence of Disease” in 2015. It was picked up by American Public Television, released nationally and internationally, and even had a one-day showing at Regal Cinemas.
“It’s been pretty amazing,” said Winter. “People have seen the documentary and have been inspired and invited us to play. We’ve been doing a lot of the bigger gigs lately and we’ve been having a great time. But the main attraction really is the patients that we play for and the people we dedicate the music and our shows to.”
In addition to Winter and Nagarsheth, N.E.D. band members include singer and guitarist Joanie Hope M.D., gynecologic oncologist at the Alaska Women's Cancer Care and director of GynOncology at Providence Alaska Cancer Center; singer and guitarist John Boggess, M.D., surgeon and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and fellowship program director, division of gynecologic oncology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine; and guitarist John Soper, M.D, Hendricks Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Their original bass guitarist, Rusty Robinson, M.D., left the group, and was recently replaced by Robert Burger, M.D, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, director of clinical research and fellowship training program, division of gynecologic oncology at the University of Pennsylvania.
So far, N.E.D. has released three studio albums, including their first full-length album “6 Degrees,” which came out in 2011.
“This album title was inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation,” said Winter. “There is no one is this world that isn’t touched in some form or fashion by gynecologic cancers.”
They released their latest album in 2016 titled “Love and Pain.”
“I am so proud of this third album that we just released because it is really sort of the product of playing together for years,” said Winter. “It’s about the beauty of life and the pain of life, and the emotions in between.”
All profits they receive from their albums and shows are used to fund awareness initiatives. They have partnerships with national advocacy group Foundation for Women’s Cancer, and Marjie’s Fund, based in Portland, OR where Winter resides.
Most of the songs are written by Boggess, Hope and Winter, with musical collaboration by the entire group as well as their producer. Collaboration can be difficult with band members spread across the county, but the group relies on technology and accumulates a lot of frequent flyer miles to make it work, said Winter.
While the music is inspired by the gamut of emotions the musicians experience every day as oncologists, it is relatable to everyone, said Winter.
“It is not in your face that these are songs about cancer,” said Winter. “We try and avoid those lyrics and feelings and make our music more far-reaching. It’s about love, life, happiness and pain. For a lot of patients, they listen to this music and say, ‘for a second I can forget that I have cancer or that I had to go through that struggle, and I am just sitting here at a rock concert enjoying myself.’ We try and give them a break from the heaviness of cancer.”
In addition to connecting with patients, the members of N.E.D also hope to educate those who do not know a lot about gynecologic cancers through their music.
“Our greatest mission would be to bring that awareness to people who don’t anything about cancer, but listen to the music and enjoy it and then find out that we are cancer doctors and cancer surgeons,” said Winter. “Now all of sudden you’ve brought somebody into the fold, by virtue of them enjoying the music. That is the big draw for us. When we can bring new people into it purely because they like the music, then that is something that is really cool.”
Music as Therapy
The band also serves as a therapeutic outlet for the musicians themselves. Many oncologists experience “burnout,” due to the difficult nature of the job, and for the members of N.E.D., playing music is a way to avoid that.
“For me this has added years to my career because I can get away from my day job,” said Winter. “In this industry, you lose a lot of good women, as many as you save. There are some women, that we know when we meet them, that three months, six months, six years down the road we are going to say goodbye. Our only hope is that we can give them comfort and peace if we can’t cure them. It is sometimes a heavy burden to face, day in and day out, without another outside release.”
This difficultly of treating this disease is why awareness is so important, adds Nagarsheth.
“Awareness helps with fundraising, which is very important to research,” he said. “It gets the word out to our patients about novel treatments that come down the pipeline. It also helps patients feel more comfortable talking about a disease where a diagnosis can sometimes be delayed because patients aren’t as comfortable discussing some of its more personal symptoms. It is just as important as anything else we do as oncologists.”
To learn more about N.E.D. visit www.nedtheband.com. Albums are available on CDbaby.com, iTunes, Spotify, Amazon