Cancer and music "that makes me want to live"—Brian Mansfield

USA Today's Nashville music critic Brian Mansfield was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 48. In a beautiful piece at USA Today, he describes a kind of "cancer honeymoon" just after his diagnosis in which he felt hopeful and eager to make changes in his life. That ended abruptly when further information about his disease showed that things would be harder. Read the whole piece, I don't want to spoil the story for you here, but this part really resonated with me:

Cancer has changed the way I hear music, more than any other life event except my marriage. Songs I once appreciated only on a surface level now strike deep at the core of my soul. Some inspire me; some terrify me. Others that I might have liked before, I've got no use for now. I've also got more time to listen, whether it's during my morning exercise time or while lying in a hospital bed.

These songs form part of the soundtrack to my cancer story...

Man. Same here, Brian. Before my mastectomy, someone on Twitter told me that some study showed that patients who were able to bring a CD of music to the operating room, to be played during their surgery, had better recovery outcomes. I made just such a CD and brought it to the hospital. Didn't end up playing it, and I recovered well, but I share this anecdote because there have also been certain songs that I play to and from important medical appointments, certain songs I've cried to or just listened over and over to, to jolt me out of the awful darkness that comes with cancer. And I'm going to play that "surgery" CD when I drive to radiation treatment this morning.

Anyway, Brian's Spotify playlist is here.

And read the rest of this story: My Semicolon Life: Cancer honeymoon's over. (USATODAY.com)

The track at the top of his list is embedded above: "Dance in the Graveyard," by Delta Rae. Download it here, and the lyrics are here, and pasted below:

When I die
I don’t want to rest in peace
I want to dance in joy
I want to dance in the graveyards, the graveyards
And while I’m alive
I don’t want to be alone
Mourning the ones who came before
I want to dance with them some more
Let’s dance in the graveyards

Gloria, like some other name we kept on calling ya and waiting for change
But I belong to all of your mysteries

And all of us, we’re meant for the fire, but we keep rising up and walking the wires
So when we go below don’t lose us in mourning

’Cause when I die
I don’t want to rest in peace
I want to dance in joy
I want to dance in the graveyards, the graveyards
And while I’m alive
I don’t want to be alone
Mourning the ones who came before
I want to dance with them some more
Let’s dance in the graveyards

Oh my love, don’t cry when I’m gone
I will lift you up, the air in your lungs
And when you reach for me, we’ll dance in the darkness

And we will walk beyond
Our daughters and sons, they will carry on
Like when we were young, and we will stand beside and breathe in their new life

’Cause when I die
I don’t want to rest in peace
I want to dance in joy
I want to dance in the graveyards, the graveyards
And while I’m alive
I don’t want to be alone
Mourning the ones who came before
I want to dance with them some more
Let’s dance in the graveyards

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  1. I work with a company that installs audio-visual equipment in operating rooms. Hands down the most used feature on our equpment is the iPod player. Surgeons typically operate to music. It’s likely music was played during your operation, though it was not your selection. If you didn’t get the psychic boost you desired, your doctor probably did, which may have been even more important to a good outcome. Good luck with your recovery.

  2. I used to work at Ucla Medical Center as an RN in one of the ICUs and had a young female patient that had a great spirit and great taste in music. One of my favorite memories was of an attending MD trying to teach an intern to insert a central line on this girl while we listened to “Too Drunk to Fuck.” She passed away shortly after but her humor and courage and refusal to be defined as her illness has always felt really wonderful.

  3. I’d like to see Mr. Mansfield’s playlist, but I don’t want to sign up for Spotify in order to do so.  :(

  4. IronEdithKidd: I can take care of that for you! Here’s the list for the column Xeni references.

    Delta Rae – Dance In The Graveyards
    Julie Lee & the Baby-Daddies – Unto the Hills
    Joe Pug – Deep Dark Wells
    The Vespers – Lawdy
    The Civil Wars – From This Valley

  5. Thanks for posting this.  During both of my chemo rounds (Stage III colorectal), my second best friend was my iPhone and the music on it. :)

  6. It stands to reason that a person facing cancer would experience certain songs with an intensity unavailable to the general audience. When I was in the darkest night of clinical depression, there were some songs that came through the fog as clearly and brightly as a bell-strike. It would be melodramatic to suggest that those songs helped me find my way out, but they did provide comfort that could not be found elsewhere.

    Naturally, if someone is curious at all about this phenomenon, they want to know what specific songs were hitting the right nerves. So far, I have never heard someone else’s special music list and felt any inkling of the intensity they felt. To me, the music was unremarkable, at best. That emphasizes the idea that we exist in separate worlds.

    1. Sure, but I don’t want to hear those music lists in order to replicate that intensity of feeling. I want to hear them because they shed light on that other person’s story, the sounds that shaped their tastes, the words that trigger a response in them. Maybe I’ll share some of those responses, maybe I won’t – either way, it starts to bring those separate worlds a little closer together.

      1. I agree Brian.  I am a survivor (diagnosed when 21) and other people’s stories always resound strongly with me.  I have always appreciate Warren Zevon’s “The Wind”.  He recorded it after being diagnosed. And bring closer to home how mortal we all are.

  7. This is the first post of yours on the subject of cancer that really hit home for me.

    The fear that one might have inadvertently passed on dangerous genes to one’s children is so frightening.  To wonder if they will go through the same trauma and pain.  To wonder if they will die young as a result.

    Thank you?

    Edit: I realize my short response above might seem insensitive. Backstory: this post gave me insight into why my dad (who has battled several cancers successfully, but is now having a much harder time with prostate cancer) reacted the way he did when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. All of a sudden, he had to face the reality that I was going to go through similar procedures….fine for him, but not what he wanted for his only child. I had been focusing on my own children being able to have their mother at least until they were adults, and feeling lucky that I had (have) a treatable type, and hadn’t really understood how my diagnosis IN GENERAL hit him as a parent. It made me realize how painful it was for him. Didn’t matter that I was probably going to be OK in the end….he knew what I would have to go through first.

    So, yeah, this hit home for me, in a way that most stories about cancer haven’t.

  8. When my wife had her mastectomy, her surgeon had a case under his arm during the pre-op visit.  We asked what was in the case and he told us it was his “surgery music”.  We then asked him what he would be playing during Annie’s surgery and without skipping a beat he said, “For you, I’m playing Billie Joel’s ‘Movin out’.”  Classic.  This was three years ago and, although she’s had to endure multiple rounds of chemo and radiation as the Stage IV, triple neg cancer keeps trying to exist, she is currently in remission.  She talks to her cancer, and tells it that it can’t exist without her, so it would be best for it to behave and learn how to live with her and stop trying to hurt her.  She is my hero.  Keep fighting, Xeni.

  9. Christmas carols sound very different, better really, sung to a dying friend. She fell asleep during the singing, finally. Check out Theresa Schroeder-Sheker, founder of Music Thanatology. Her Rosa Mystica is great music to play for a dying loved one, especially, “For The Roses”. Peace.

  10. I couldn’t agree more.  Music is my life and I believe is the reason why I survived Stage 2 colorectal cancer.  As a promoter in the Pittsburgh area, I amassed many connections with artists over the years and, with their help, created the Electronic Saviors:Industrial Music To Cure Cancer compilations for Metropolis Records.  I think articles this this are awesome.

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