Background music for radiation therapy.

I might have subtitled this entry “Whistling in the Graveyard,” but my thinking is not that advanced. Nor depressed. Never mind, we’ll blame my dull mind on the microscopic prostate cancer that haunts my lower abdomen.

The cancerous gland itself was surgically removed last year, but some stubborn cancer cells stayed and started colonizing me again. This time around, my doctors are spraying the equivalent of RAID® at them in the form of 3-D rads, hoping to wipe out the nest. If you read this column on Wednesday, March 28, Anno Domini 2018, I will be exactly halfway through my prescribed dosage of 34 radiation therapy sessions.

Though both the medical literature and street lore warned me of the possibility that the treatment might produce side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, burnt skin, or bladder/rectum malfunctioning, so far I seem not to have been visited by those afflictions. However, no one warned me of something else I might be subjected to while lying helplessly on the radiation room table: bad or bland music.

I mean, really, when you put on a hospital gown and lie there like a child, trusting that the good people behind the shielded curtain have your best interests at heart, do you really expect to hear Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels screaming “Devil with a Blue Dress On?

I didn’t. I admit it’s a fine song for a fellow like me to white-man dance to (hop up and down, flailing my arms with no regard to the beat). But it’s not one to hear when lying supine in a futuristic space station – while having one’s innards vaporized by beaming photons. It makes me feel like someone indifferent to my specialness is watching me and chewing gum.

So I asked if they had any other kind of music they could play during my therapy. “Sure,” they said, “what would you like?” Instinctively, everything being new in those days, and feeling I was not in my best bargaining position anatomically, what with lying on my back, beached-porpoise belly naked from sternum to pubic promontory, just a sneeze away from exposing my “Little Elvis” to the world’s mockery, I meekly said, “Classical?”

And so it came to be, but kind of what you’d expect: I lay there in the dimly lit room, alone, machines moving around me, and on came “Pachelbel’s Canon.” Lovely piece of music that. Soothing. A kind of perfect composition. Just right for that second day of treatment. A reminder that beneath the mechanical there shall always be a human mind and soul. Just what I needed, as I lay there, to suppress my apprehensions about being alone with a giant death ray machine. But kind of a cliché.

On the third day I asked for classical again. The music started while they were still prepping me: “Pachelbel’s Canon” again. The radiation technicians are a sweet, gentle, very soothing bunch of young men and women. And they seem anxious to please, so, even though I was merely a transient and a guest in their house, I dared to be fussy and asked if they had another selection I could listen to during my tete-a-tete with R2-D2.

“Sure,” they said. After I was made ready, they left. I listened. As the radiation machine began unfurling itself, like a huge, blocky, flower going into slow-motion blossom, the music started: Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”

No, no, no, I thought. First, it’s too soft a composition to be heard above the whirring of the machines. Second, it was like being trapped in the elevator of a department store whose music was programmed to try to make me buy things.

Third, I felt, as the head of biggest machine moved closer to my face, that I’d accidentally contracted a blind date with a wedding event planner who’d timed this to be the Big Smooch moment. I don’t know what kind of mood a radiation patient is supposed to carry aboard when he comes aboard, but my hopes sunk. “Afternoon of a Faun” is a sweet piece of music, but I graduated from it a long time ago.

That’s when I decided to take my fate into my own hands. If baseball players can choose to have the stadium loudspeakers play their “signature” tunes when they come to bat, why can’t I? After “Devil/Blue Dress,” “Pachelbel’s Canon,” and “Faun’s Afternoon,” personal action was called for. When that day’s session ended, I asked if I could choose my own music for tomorrow. “Sure,” they said.

“Can I bring a CD?” No, I was told, they weren’t set up for that. They’d used Pandora the past two days, but it was kind of programmed. An alternative would be YouTube, anything from YouTube.

Well, okay, I thought. Kind of limiting, but what a challenge. I drove away after that third day’s radiation session, my mind flipping through tunes I might want to hear the way records used to flip past when you pushed a jukebox button. Hmmmm, what might I want to hear? What kind of music would be worthy of my illness?

Hugh Gilmore is a writer and antiquarian-book seller who lives in Chestnut Hill with two cool cats, Janet and Andrew.

...