How Music Helps Me Face My Cancer


I am amazed at how a song drenched in hope emerges out of the fog when I need it most during cancer.

cartoon drawing of pancreatic cancer and blogger, William Ramshaw

OK, I’m not a musician or even an aspiring one. Back in grade school, I flunked both the clarinet and then the snare drum in spades. Years later I tried the guitar but could never figure out how to tune the dang thing.

But there is something about listening to music — the comfort it brings me, the way the melodies rock me and its lyrics lullaby me. It’s hypnotic. It lifts me out of my daily struggles into another dimension, a magical one where cancer doesn’t exist. Music heals me.

I wonder what this magic is about, but I have no answers, not even guesses. I simply know it soothes me.

Listening to music transports me back to days when my life was simple.Where my biggest worry was whether some cute girl I liked felt the same about me. Facing pancreatic cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.

Today as part of my “keep-cancer-as-far-away-from-my-door-as-I-can” routine, I try to get to the gym three or four times a week. I don’t do anything special. I ride a recumbent bike for about 30 minutes. (I used to use an elliptical stepper, but due to the osteo in my back thanks to my abdominal radiation, this is no longer possible.) To help maintain what upper body strength I have left I use a half dozen or so weight machines. Again, nothing special.

But truth tell, I hate going to the gym. Going to the dentist is more fun. To help me get through it, I listen to classic rock piped into my ears through a pair of junky headphones. I’m fond of stuff like Crosby, Stills, & Nash; James Taylor; The Eagles; America; Simon and Garfunkel; and Harry Chapin to name a few. I get lost in their music. Time flashes by as it flows through me.

Crosby Stills & Nash’s, “Southern Cross” takes me back to my long-ago days. As a young sailor, having seen the Southern Cross from the deck of a U.S. Navy destroyer, I find this song dripping with imagery. Like so many young guys, I felt invincible back then. The idea of being torpedoed by cancer seemed absurd to me. It wasn’t anything I gave any thought to whatsoever.

I am amazed at how a song drenched in hope emerges out of the fog when I need it most. I remember one day in particular, a bleak January one. After a rather brutal chemo session, I felt beat up, in the ditch. The once-radiant snow turned dingy gray blended like brackish water into the dreary sky. On my way to work James Taylor’s, “You’ve Got a Friend” began to float out of my car’s speakers. The words, “You’ve got a friend” shredded me. A presence I couldn’t explain filled my car. It spoke, “I’ve got you. You’re not alone.”

And of course, I love The Eagles', “Life in the Fastlane.”Thinking I was indestructible, I suppose one of the reasons I got sick was I spent too much time pushing myself to perform, working 24/7 and eating junk food. I lived in the fast lane, so to speak, taking no account to I would reap what I sowed.

This not to mention America’s, “Horse With No Name.” Now, having spent years in the cancerdesert, it has a special meaning to me. As much as my cancer impacted my family and close friends, it is an “alonething,” riding a horse in the desert looking for the life underground. Cancer added new meaning to my life.

Or Simon & Garfunkel’s, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”Amid cancer, I’ve felt both weary and small, and shed endless tears. Yet I somehow survived even when I thought I couldn’t.

Or Harry Chapin’s, “Cat’s in the Cradle,”a classic for sure, recounting a man’s life and how his son becomes just like him. Cancer has caused me to replay my life, the good, the bad, and just plain ugly, causing me to wonder if I’ve lived the life I intended to live. Looking back on it, I resolved to live a better life moving forward.

There are so many songs I love. This strange connection between life and listening to music has helped me transcend my cancer, to move beyond it. Music heals me in a way I can’t explain.

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Dr. Karyn A. Goodman