July 07, 2022
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Music can lift us outside ourselves and bring everyone around us into a magical world where thoughts of cancer melt away — even for a moment.
“The screen door slams / Mary’s dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch / As the radio plays…” I’m driving in my car, turning up Bruce Springsteen. This could be a good song to play, I think.
My husband and I are always on the lookout for new material to add to our concert repertoire. Though we’ll be married for 20 years in 2023, we only discovered our mutual talents 10 to 15 years ago.
“Music is a lens into the world of God,” my husband, Bill Johnson, says. “I love getting lost in music and it just plays itself.”
He has a collection of eight guitars, a djembe drum, and a large drum set. I have a Steinway grand piano (from a now-defunct church), an electric keyboard, one acoustic guitar, and hundreds — if not thousands — pieces of sheet music.
We have been playing in retirement homes and hospitals for over 5 years. My diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer in 2016 didn’t stop us and neither did COVID-19. Instead, we took our concerts online and shared them on social media. We’ve done show tunes, singalongs, classical and contemporary music, and more.
On Valentine’s Day, 5 years ago, we performed love songs to a packed crowd. The elderly audience loved us.
I still get emotional when we play “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis, “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills & Nash, or “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, my husband’s harmonies merging with my soprano voice. I am moved when our audience joins us in “Climb Every Mountain” or “Shall We Dance?”
The power of music lifts us outside ourselves, transcends the mundane, and brings everyone around us into a magical world.
“Together, we help heal people we don’t know,” my husband says. “Whether at a hospital or retirement home. It also brings us closer together.”
“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears — it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more — it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” — Oliver Wolf Sacks
The late Oliver Sacks was a British neurologist, naturalist, and historian of science who studied how music interacts with his patients. Indeed, music has been a source of healing since the beginning of humanity.
More recently, research has shown that music has emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia. It can improve mood, reduce agitation, and lead to better communication between a person with dementia and their caregiver.
“Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
— Berthold Auerbach
Music can also be therapeutic for people with cancer. Whether you listen, sing, or play music, it can have beneficial effects. While music therapy can’t cure cancer or any other disease, it may help reduce cancer-related anxiety, improve quality of life, and reduce symptoms and side effects.
In a 2016 review of studies, researchers found that music helped relieve pain among people with cancer.
And according to a small 2013 study, researchers found that music therapy and guided visual imagery resulted in less nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy in addition to less anxiety.
I’ve played piano since I was five and guitar since I was in college. For me, music reaches my deepest emotions. When I play a Chopin sonata or Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” I tap into an energy and may experience grief, desire, sadness, or ecstasy.
A purifying or purging happens. When the song is finished, I’m in a different place from where I began.
And who wouldn’t want to cross that threshold, join the flow where time stands still and cancer melts away for the moment like candle wax? Who wouldn’t want to breathe fully, sing passionately, and share a duo of voices with society?
In the Chicago area, a community of singers — many of whom have breast cancer — formed a nonprofit community chorus dedicated to this mission. The Sing to Live Community Chorus is a community of over 80 singers who rehearse weekly and perform concerts twice a year, all while sharing the experience of living or knowing somebody with breast cancer.
Yes, even despite cancer we can tap into our talents and merge with the moment. Practicing joy in music is a way to shove cancer back into its place, live in the moment, and be supremely happy. Its residue seeps into your thoughts long after the concert is over.
I find myself humming “My Favorite Things” or Bob Marley’s “One Love” as I drive. I can’t think of anything better.
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