Music Heals: Stories & Songs from our Listeners, Part One

Music Heals

On Thursday, March 28th, KEXP presents Music Heals: Beyond Cancer, a day of programming dedicated to the power of music and the part it plays for those facing cancer. From 6 AM to 6 PM, John Richards, Cheryl Waters, and Kevin Cole will tell the stories shared with them by listeners and community members, and feature songs that helped them through the healing process.

Listeners are encouraged to share their experiences with cancer and how music played a part in their lives. Those interested in participating can email, then tune in on Thursday, March 28th to hear those stories and songs shared on air. 

We're sharing some of these stories on the KEXP website, too. Due to the volume of emails we receive, we can't share every story, but we appreciate every listener who took the time to share their lives with the KEXP community. 

Some stories are edited for length and clarity

My husband Chris passed away from cancer in late August. He was a childhood cancer survivor who lived 24 years after his bone marrow transplant in high school. Unfortunately, he had two more difficult bouts with cancer as an adult.

One morning, I heard John Richards interview Brandon from the Helio Sequence about the Keep Your Eyes Ahead album. The interview really resonated with me, especially because it was written when Brandon was going through a dark time and the resulting songs were full of hope. The songs became my fall/winter anthem to help me move forward. I also bought tix to see the Helio Sequence when they played in Boston in December.

In the meantime, I attended the Death and Music event in November for the first time in Seattle. It was an amazing event, and I met some great people while I was there, including John, Owen, Morgan, and Faces of Fortitude photographer Mariangela Abeo, who inspired me to learn how to use Chris’ film camera.

The last night at my hotel in downtown Seattle, as I was sitting in the lobby, the Helio Sequence’s “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” came on. It was so appropriate because I was staying at the hotel where Chris and I used to stay when we would go to Seattle for New Year’s or other concerts. I felt very hopeful and at peace when I heard the song. It was THE perfect ending to my trip.

— Kara in Boston

I was diagnosed with aggressive, invasive breast cancer and treated in 2004 and 2005. Shellshocked and casting about for something to grab onto as my world seemed to implode, I happened to tune into KEXP and hear "Reach for the Sky" by Social Distortion. It spoke to me and became my anthem. I listened to many new musicians and music, and they became the soundtrack to months of chemo and healing beyond. My sister burned CD’s for my CD player (this was pre- iPod, iPhone), and I brought them to treatment every time. I cranked the volume up as loud as I could and possibly became the only patient to emerge from that chemo with significant, permanent hearing loss. But the peace it brought was invaluable. 

Music does help heal, one note at a time.

— Leslie

My story isn't about living with or surviving cancer. It's about surviving and living with the grief that cancer can leave behind. I spent 2013 mired in grief. Over the span of six months that year, I lost three of the most important people in my life to cancer: my friend Melissa, who fiercely battled a brain tumor before leaving this life in April '13; my vivacious stepsister Andrea, who got her angel wings in June '13; and my best friend, my brother Rich, who stoically fought for 12 years until the disease surpassed the effectiveness of science in September '13. All three were under 31 years old.

This was almost 6 years ago. At times, it feels like yesterday. I wish I could tell people dealing with cancer-caused grief that it gets better, that it will somehow, eventually, hurt less — but that would not be fair. Grief is like an ocean, with all the complicated tides and waves that accompany it, and that ocean is unique to each person; it's unpredictable, there is no timeline, and no right or wrong way to feel (don't let anyone tell you otherwise).

What I can give proof to, what is true, is that music does help heal, and it's impossible for me to think of any of my loved ones without soundtracks unique to their memories. I often hear Sevendust's acoustic sets when memories of my brother pop into my mind (and on days when rage sets in, I'll listen to their debut album, volume up high) — Rich and I saw the band live together at least 4 times. Brandi Carlile's voice reminds me of Melissa's and brings back memories of when Mel sang her own songs on the stages of dingy Seattle bars. And I can't help but think of my sister Andrea behind the wheel of her Jeep, me in the passenger seat, music bumping loudly when I hear Missy Elliot's "The Rain."

My story is hard. Music helps me, and it'll help you.

— Andrea

A friend of mine has recently started treatment for an advanced stage and rare form of cancer. This Radiohead song will forever remind me of our nascent friendship, so many years ago, and the summer road trips that included driving out to see this band at the Gorge in 2001. The opening of the album OK Computer, especially on compact disc and stock speakers, transport me to pleasant memories of that time and instill an optimism for her future. 

— Corrie

Today (March 28th) is my Dad's birthday. Today he will find out if his cancer has come back. 

If you ask anyone that knows our family, they'd all tell you the same thing: he's our rock, our strength. He takes care of everyone around him and is always there to wrap you in a hug. 

My Dad was diagnosed with colon cancer in June 2016 and went into remission before his birthday in March 2017. Recently he went in for a check-up where they noticed something out of the ordinary. The last few weeks have been filled with anxiety and uncertainty as we wait for the test results.  No matter the outcome, we have to hope. Hope that he'll be okay and grateful that we have each other.

Growing up my Dad would always play British rock. I have vivid memories as a kid in the backseat of our car with my sisters as my Dad would play The Verve, Oasis, and The Police. (What's the Story) Morning Glory? is still one of our favorites. 

— Tessa

My first direct encounter with cancer came about eight years ago. Five months after I married my beautiful wife, Chelsa (not Chelsea), I convinced her to do some blood tests with a Naturopath to see why she had been feeling tired… thinking maybe she would come home with a prescription for vitamin D. Through a series of referrals, she was instead diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a terrible form of bone cancer.

There were a lot of emotions over the following month, ranging from fear after the initial diagnosis, to dread as we considered our future and plans to start a family, to a mix of joy and worry when we realized that we were already pregnant, to anger and deep sadness months later when we lost the baby. We landed in a place of hope and determination to overcome this disease, despite the odds.

Chelsa battled this cancer for over seven years and I was by her side the entire time. We endured chemotherapy, stem cell transplants, blood transfusions, bone marrow biopsies, and side effects. We visited treatment centers around the country, signed up for clinical trials, experimented with new drugs. We spent many nights in hospitals and treatment centers. I’m proud to say that I made sure she never spent a single night alone, either me, her mom, or her sister maintained a seat or a cot by her side.  

Although she was going through hell, Chelsa maintained an incredible level of joy and kindness. Going to the treatment center was like being with a celebrity – everyone would rush over to say hello and receive a kind word from her. Even though she was often in the middle of a lot of fatigue, fear, and pain, Chelsa always took time to listen, ask questions, and find ways to serve everyone around her. It wasn’t that she never got angry… her favorite song to listen to on the way into doctor appointments was NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.”  Chelsa just never let her anger or fear take away her hope and her faith.

We were able to see Sufjan Stevens perform at the Paramount during his Carrie & Lowell tour a few years back. There is a somewhat intense moment during one of the songs on the album, “The Fourth of July” in which he repeats the line: “We’re all gonna die” again and again. When the song cut off, the entire theater sat in silence for a few moments. I asked Chelsa later what she had been thinking and feeling at that moment. She said she had been thinking about the people in that theater and wondering what they thought about this truth that was being laid before them with lights and music swirly around it. Chelsa was solid in her hope that there is something more beyond this life. Having cancer laid the inevitably of death directly in front of us in a way that definitely wore us down, but never robbed us of the joy and peace that came from that hope of something more. She was always wanting that hope for others.

Chelsa died this past year after her brain started bleeding and had a sudden aneurysm. It’s still hard for me to share that. I had made up my mind that it simply wouldn’t happen… we had been through too much, too many close calls, and she was just too tough for death. As I’ve been struggling to figure out what my life will look like now without her, the two albums that Phil Elvrum (Mount Eerie) released following the death of his own wife, A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only, have been a part of my healing process.  While Phil and I may have different perspectives on death, it has been helpful to hear someone else share their sadness in such a raw, honest way that wrestles with such a huge loss, with what to do with the memories and the hole that remains, and which gives voice to many of questions and strange thoughts that come into a grieving mind.   

I’m not one to process my grief openly with others. I’ve tried, but my grief comes when I’m alone. It’s not something that I avoid but have been trying to find healthy ways to embrace. I journal. I make playlists of the songs that remind me of her or that speak to me in some way. I look at pictures. Sometimes I just sit and think about what she might be doing now. My hope is that she’s having drinks and singing songs with Johnny Cash, telling stories with JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, and having a meal with our maker that would put any of our fancy date nights to shame.

Thanks for giving me this opportunity to share about my girl. Love to everyone else out there missing someone.

— Matt

15 years ago, April 1st, I got the keys to our new home... and a cancer diagnosis.  And it wasn't an April fool.  Our own little piece of the American dream turned in to a nightmare.  I had a 3-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son.  My new husband of just one year was terrified.  We had planned to try to have a child of our own together, once we got settled into our new place. That plan went on hold.

I had three large tumors on my right breast, so mastectomy with five months of chemo was my reality.  My husband and I called our day in the chemo room "our lunch date", as afterward, we would go have lunch before nausea set in.  He used to sing me "Don't Fade Away" by Dead Can Dance.  The lyrics were so personal, I cried every time.  Soon, Dead Can Dance became a source of comfort for me and made me just relax and live in the moment.  The first concert I went to after my treatment was over was Dead Can Dance at the Paramount.  Going made me feel blessed to be alive!

I am doing really well, now and I have stayed cancer-free. I survived to tell the tale. 

— Lori

I lost my mom to endometrial cancer two-and-a-half years ago. She was only 52 years old, and 99% percent of her body was in tremendous shape. She spent her entire life a workout fanatic, stuck to a healthy diet, never smoked, and rarely drank. She was a true example of how nondiscriminatory the disease can be.

My mom loved to travel to Europe with my dad. She liked going on walks and going to the gym. She loved little kids and old people. And she was my greatest cheerleader, somebody who loved me and supported me unconditionally no matter what. I try to keep perspective by telling myself many people don’t get to have an awesome mom for 30 years, and that I'm truly lucky for that. (“Death is a part of life,” as my dad likes to say.) But it’s hard, and I miss her and struggle at times.

In my mother's memory, I’d love to hear anything by Brandi Carlile that came out before 2016 (I’m not terribly familiar with her work, but my mom loved her and saw her live with my dad several times).

— Andrew

Like too many others, my life has been touched by cancer.

My aunt Colleen was the light of my world. She was like a mother to me. Eighteen years ago, she passed away after over a decade's battle with leukemia and Hodgkin's disease. 

After she got diagnosed for the second time, I helped shave her head. What liberation! As her curls flew off, she belted along with U2, which she consistently had blasting through her dinky boombox. That strength forever inspires me.

She passed not long after that. I inherited her CD collection, including U2 Best of 1980-1990, and, with a little money she left me, I bought a guitar and started music lessons. 

I think about her every day: she was the first person to ever tell me to sing, she is the reason I started writing, and the reason I play music now. I'd like to think she would be proud of me, but more importantly, my pride in her I carry forever.

— Sarah

Due to complications with my surgery and a wound infection that arose, I have yet to undergo chemotherapy or radiation. While I hope to by the time this airs, I want to share my story regardless as music has helped me heal in the meantime during my cancer diagnosis. 

I have always been a healthy, and now a 31-year-old woman who had been living in New York for a few years when I had a seizure in bed late at night on December 20, 2018. 

I didn't want to go to the hospital, but my boyfriend had called the medics and asked me to go for him. I obliged, and luckily I did because I had another seizure in the ambulance. It was at Brooklyn Hospital where they did a CT scan and MRI and found a mass. My boyfriend (who I should mention is a DJ) called his friend at Mt. Sinai Hospital (who happens to be a physician assistant and also a fellow DJ) and she advised us to come uptown to this hospital instead. We jumped in a Lyft and went to yet another emergency room. It was here where they diagnosed me with a glioma grade 3 brain tumor. My family flew out from Seattle and were able to be my side during the surgery the doctors did on Christmas Eve to remove the tumor. (The best Christmas present EVER!)

I had to stay in the hospital for a total of 3.5 weeks before my speech and motor skills returned. In no time, I was dancing in the kitchen with my dad to Talking Heads, "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)". While I battled insurance and "patiently" waited to start treatment, my boyfriend said I should make a mixtape with my favorite songs on it and give it to everyone who has donated to my GoFundMe. You can bet I have Talking Heads and lots of other positive and uplifting jams I was listening to during this time on it. 

As I've learned, there is no linear process for healing, so I wish everyone who is going through recovery the best of luck and lots of love. 

Update: After awaiting insurance approval and battling a wound infection, I will begin finally begin chemotherapy and proton radiation on Wednesday 3/20 at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance! 

— Anna