My Cancer Playlist

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I don’t know about you, but music moves me. Literally. It makes me move.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, John Smelcer

I’m frequently caught dancing in the aisles of the grocery store while listening to some song playing overhead. Folks passing generally smile and say something like, “I love that song, too.” I can’t not move to music. I absolutely understand why Elvis Presley had to wiggle. It’s funny, but most of my memories are accompanied by a soundtrack. My memories are stored alongside the song that was playing on the radio at that exact moment. For example, I remember clearly walking down the street one summer day on my way to a cub scout meeting. Petula Clark’s then-popular song “Downtown” was playing on some radio nearby. Another memory is of walking to a friend’s house and hearing Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” blaring on some radio. You can probably figure my age from these songs. My wife is constantly amazed at the way my brain seems to waste valuable gigabyte storage on music. She just isn’t moved by music the way I am. They say opposites attract. I guess that may be true. While I have something like 600 music CDs at home, my wife has one. Paul Simon’s Graceland is the only album she routinely listens to. It’s a source of conversation often in our marriage.

After I was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2022, a handful of songs became the soundtrack to my cancer experience. They were always nearby. I played them over and over, turning to them for strength and inspiration and well-being. Surprisingly, it’s a rather short list which includes Sia’s “Unstoppable,” Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” David Getta’s “Titanium,” Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” 80s long-hair band White Snake’s “Here I Go Again” and the hard-charging sound of Thirty Seconds to Mars’ “Closer to the Edge.” When I was feeling particularly low and just needed to lift my spirit, I’d play 90s teen brothers band Hanson’s “MmmBop” over and over (you can stop laughing now). It’s almost impossible not to feel happy listening to that song. Almost anything by the Swedish rock super-band ABBA was a perfect antidote to my melancholy. I remember watching Mama Mia in the movie theater. I couldn’t stay in my seat. I was up dancing and singing with tears of joy streaming down my cheeks. I even wrote a poem about how the music of ABBA lifts my spirit. The poem appears in my new book, Running from the Reaper: Poems from an Impatient Cancer Survivor, now available online.

HOW THE SWEDISH SUPERBAND ABBA REINFORCED MY DESIRE TO LIVE:

I never wept for having cancer. Not once.

My wife bawled when the oncologist delivered my diagnosis.

My mother-in-law sobbed when she heard the news.

Heck, I didn’t even cry when the doctors said the tumor was gone.

But, standing in the brightening light

near the end of the tunnel, I finally broke down.

Relieved, I wept grateful tears of joy

like the time I saw Mama Mia! in a movie theatre.

Watching the musical again tonight reminded me

how much I want to love, laugh, sing, dance, and dream.

I want to feel!

I want to be!

I want to live!

During my six months of hospitalizations for chemo treatment, I always had to undergo two intrathecal injections of chemotherapy into my spine twice a week. The radiologist and staff always had some playlist playing and we’d sing the songs and swap trivia about the song or singer or album—all while I was lying on my stomach trying not to move or wince from the needle in my back. Because of the music, I endured an otherwise miserable experience, the one I most didn’t look forward to during each hospitalization.

Going through cancer treatment is often miserable and lonely. Uncertainty abounds. The future is unclear. But if music can soothe the savage beast, it can certainly calm you during cancer treatment, offer you words of inspiration. Or maybe it can just put a smile on your face—even if only for the length of a single song.

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