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Healing Through Music: A Leukemia Patient's Tale

Dating back to pre-school age, my mom used to tell me she would put a stack of records (dating myself!) on the stereo, sit me down in a rocking chair and let me sing and rock for hours until I fell asleep.

Well, I do not have a stereo now or a rocking chair, but I can safely say that if I did not have music in my life, I do not know what I would do.

My entire life, I have played clarinet in bands—school, marching, community and symphonic ones, to be exact.

Keeping up with the music after diagnosis

In 2014, I was diagnosed with blood cancer, chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). I had to think long and hard about continuing to play. It was a whopper of an adjustment to cope with a terminal illness and all the treatment that goes with it.

Would I have enough breath even to play a woodwind instrument?

Nevertheless, for about six more years, I traveled some distance weekly to rehearsals and concert performances. My fellow band members and conductor were understanding and kind about my condition. Best of all, they treated me like a “normal” person. There, I was still the old Susan, if nowhere else.

CML takes a backseat

Whether I was feeling sick, weak or nauseous, every week for those two hours of rehearsal, I would buckle down and concentrate on the music and CML would miraculously get backburned. I did not think about it.

When rehearsals finished, I was again aware physically that I had blood cancer. I felt different from before and was often in pain or extremely fatigued.

I had rashes, a flushing face, a very pale face, fluctuating moods, achy muscles and joints and more. Music was my haven, my respite, even if only for a little while each week.

In the summer of 2019, I went through a rough patch with my depression, feeling myself spiraling and feeling the doom and gloom and heavy weight of blood cancer.

I’m hyper in tune now with my emotions as well as physical declines. I remember sitting in my apartment trying to think of ways to pick myself up one more time.

I saw an ad online for a chorus about 20 minutes away. Now, I had not sung in a chorus since the fifth grade and I am not exactly Celine Dion or some other singing diva.

But several things appealed to me about the ad. One, there were no auditions and it was open to any age or skill level. Two, it was not a chorus that sang lofty classical music but instead, it centered around rock music.

I could get on board with that.

Forgetting my problems

Third and most importantly, the group’s motto is about healing yourself through music. The acceptance and camaraderie you experience, testimonials said, would lift your spirits and help you forget your problems.

It sounded like something I needed.

Yet, I nearly backed out on the first day. After a self-pep talk, I braved a torrential rainstorm to go to the rehearsal where I encountered well over 100 other members. Shy and feeling out of place, I sat in the very back row and chatted minimally with other newbies trying out the experience.

Fast forward, I stayed.

I experienced the healing that was promised. I learned a lot about singing in those 18 months. I performed several concerts in front of large crowds. Once again, music helped me put CML to one side for a little while each week.

COVID meant band stopped, chorus stopped. Pretty much everything stopped other than medical appointments and blood work.

The past two years got more difficult as my treatment stopped working, I had emergency gallbladder surgery and my mobility became compromised. With the onset of spinal stenosis, I must use a rolling walker full-time. It makes me feel weird and self-conscious.

Putting Blood Cancer Aside

During 2022, I experienced FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)—watching band rehearsals resume at a distance and commute that is too much for me now. I watched chorus start up again – performing online and in concerts.

I felt myself spiraling back into a depression and solemn place and did not know what to do.

Then, coincidently, or not, I saw an ad online for that same chorus. It again talked about healing through music. I contemplated going back but told myself it would be too difficult. I worried about the walker, my overall health and fitting in.

Then I saw the planned setlist. The first song was my late mother’s name. The second was by my favorite rock group. I seriously thought about giving it another try.

The minute I self-consciously walked in the door (or rolled!) and saw my old friends and acquaintances, it was like no time passed. I felt accepted. My condition is not a big deal for those who know about it. It is not that they don’t care, it is that they see Susan and not my leukemia.

Music frees me of that stigma and I hope it always will.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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