Close to Home: Songs of Survivorship

This “Close to Home: Songs of Survivorship” musical collection may have always been meant to be, but was not planned.

As a cancer surgeon and caregiver to family members with cancer, I have been transformed and healed by the power and wisdom of the patient narrative and the emotional integrity of beautiful music. From the beginning, music was planned to play an important role in this project, but I intended to use prewritten, available tracks. Circumstances led us down a different path.

After witnessing the authenticity, generosity and punch of those interviewed for the PBS documentary “Close to Home: Cancer Survivorship”, new music of a similar intensity was required. Dr. Dan Foster and myself collaborated to conceptualize musically, then capture the wide range of emotion and color intrinsic to the cancer journey. Dan’s gorgeous melodies, enhanced with his breathtaking orchestrations grounded my lyric borne of the narratives of survivorship.

And so, over the course of a year, Dan and I worked deliberately to develop this collection. I’ve played music since the age of 5 and published many essays, but I have never written specifically for music nor did I even know how to begin this task. But I knew how I felt when cancer entered my home. And I knew that healing happens at home. I also understood how much I’ve changed as the result of our family’s cancer journey. I found music to be extremely important in my recovery as a caregiver. Most importantly, I work closely with cancer survivors and caregivers every day who generously share their innermost thoughts: their fears and joys, their struggles and acquiescences.

Strong research and ability to write essays unfortunately doesn’t translate particularly well into good lyrics. My friend, Trish Maran MD, writes beautiful poetry that is enjoyed primarily by her laptop. She thinks in stanza and rhyme and meter and image. We sat together for a couple of hours for each song over a bottle of wine to get an idea of what I wanted to say, and how best to verbalize it. We developed a process, which I’ve used throughout this collection. Then I spent countless hours writing and rewriting, all the while becoming very familiar with a rhyming dictionary, a practice that Trish eschewed.

The musical writing process was simple for me: find and hire a genius composer who also happened to be a college music professor and dedicated teacher. Dr. Dan Foster is that man. I would explain by phone the song and form and the sound I was looking for and the lines and intervals I enjoyed singing, send a confirmatory email with YouTube links to songs that I found similar to what I wanted, and voila, a week or two later, I would get a melody with chord progressions playable on a computer program. He nailed every one the first time. My favorite was “Words Left Unsaid” which came with a warning: “My Cathy (Dan’s wife) says don’t listen to this one before you go to bed”. For some odd reason, I heeded that advice. And when I made time to listen, its haunting melody has never left me. Dan then rearranged the songs to include piano, strings, guitar and oboe. I must confess the first time I heard the strings in the studio, playing along to my vocal tracks, I wept.

Choosing the form of the songs came in mini inspirations throughout the months that we worked. After all, how do you write cancer survivorship songs about courage or fear or advocacy? What form does that take? The answer came fairly early on when I realized I was writing songs simply about courage or fear or advocacy. The cancer survivorship part came about in the images and examples and language that I would choose in the lyrics. When unencumbered, the song form was easier to find. For example, how do you write a song about fear in cancer survivorship? Fear is so universal and ugly and paralyzing. It’s something we all experience, but who wants to listen to it? So our song on fear took on the form of a lullaby. A gentle soothing of fear. The song on caregiving had to be a love song that was a duet. And our obvious choice for the advocacy theme was an anthem.

I will finish where I began; this project was never planned, but was always meant to be. My hope is that this music washes through you, gently guiding healing as it finds its way to your soul.

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