The start of my cancer treatment playlist.

by Hugh Gilmore

Being radiated 34 times in seven weeks is not fun, but I made it enjoyable for myself by turning the process into an extended performance piece. Once I found out I could choose my own music for listening to during therapy, I spent a crazy amount of time trying to decide what I wanted to hear. Over time, my musical choices came to reflect my attitude towards my life, my disease, my therapy and the weird machine that circled me each day emitting death rays into my lower belly.

At first, back in March, I felt like a victim. I was a poor, sad soul who had to lie on his back and receive this potentially damaging treatment for a potentially fatal illness. I wasn’t shivering with fright, but I was scared. I swallowed my fear, though, and accepted that I had to go through this process if I wanted to live. So as not to scare my friends and family I assumed an air of nonchalance. Hence my first song choice was Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?” That made me feel good in a kind of taunting-fate way.

Underneath the pose, however, the sterile and mechanical nature of the radiation room made life itself seem precious, so I asked to hear Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” It was great, a warm reminder of what might lie ahead for me if I do not die of this particular cancer at this particular point in my life. The usual worry.

For about a week, though, I felt like a prisoner, and I chose a few pieces of music that reflected that. One was Willie Nelson singing his “Hello Walls,” where the lonely singer talks to his walls and ceiling and window: “We’ve got to all stick together or else I’ll lose my mind.” The next day brought Johnny Cash doing his own “Folsom Prison Blues.” That throbbing guitar and baseline helped maintain that streak of mild defiance as I watched the machinery moving around me. Thus my first week as prisoner/victim ended.

Of course I had survived and the treatments didn’t hurt, and I wasn’t feeling any after-effects yet, so it was time, to stop being “brave” and ease up on that passivity theme. I came in on Monday wondering what it would be like to hear something beautiful while lying under those weird machines. Could the beauty of music override their whirr? I chose to hear “The Humming Chorus” from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” That’s when I ran into the limitations of Radiation Room #6’s music system.

The technicians are a wonderful crew of people (Dom, Mike, Megan, Tracy and Kristen, I thank you) and they really seem to care to put their patients at ease. They would play any tune available on YouTube for me. But not that day. The YouTube they offer comes off a laptop and plays through a weak speaker that is at the mercy of whoever posted it. I couldn’t hear the “Humming Chorus” at all. We tried again the next day. No.

Two days without music induced a bite of regret as though I’d wasted two days of possible spirit questing. I was getting into this experience and feeling it as a kind of self-expression: a Man vs. Machine kind of contest. I decided to start listening to possible YouTube selections last thing at night so I’d have a hearable selection for my next treatment. Once I’d figured out the following day’s menu, I’d go to bed at night feeling quite happy and eager to get back to Fox Chase Cancer Center in the morning.

What followed I remember now as Weirdness Week. I wanted to get trippy. You know: hazy, let go of my conscious mind and just let my eyes and ears undergo a synesthesia that put me into a benevolent trance for the rest of the day. That way, each day’s therapy session would actually be a kind of psychic cleansing, a soul purging. And a funny one at that. I wanted the radiation room, for my fifteen minutes, to be a place where the absurd, tripped-out lion lay down with the sleepy zoned-out lamb.

I started with Louis Prima: “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You.” But that was really just a joke before hunching down with the following songs on successive days: “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Procul Harum…my favorite nonsensical arty song), “Hotel California” (The Eagles – just to hear the line “This could be heaven, this could be hell” during cancer radiation therapy). On Friday came “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen … afterward I wanted to ask the team to let me go around again … I floated out of there).

The following week began with “The Flower Duet” aria from “Lakme” and then the “Agnus Dei” choral version of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” I had hit my stride by then. Filled with hope – so many wonderful pieces of music in the world for me to be radiated by. The beginning of several wonderful weeks to come.

I probably sound simple-minded, but I remember what looked like a creaking, buzzing spacecraft slowly floating by, a few inches above my face in a darkened room with purple soffit lights while lying half-naked on my back listening to “Adagio for Strings” and remembering that I love my wife and son, but we must all die someday, but forget that – I want to live forever, and both this machine that heals by destroying and the machines that bring me the music, and even the mind of Samuel Barber himself, prove that Louis Armstrong was right: this is a wonderful world. I felt stupidly happy beyond the reach of tears.

And then, wham! Up came the lights. Session over. Next patient needs this table, pull up your pants and put your shoes back on, Hugh. See you Monday.

That was okay. I’d had my therapy for the day – in every sense of the word.

Next week, probably my final week on this theme: I’m allowed to bring in my own Bose CD player from home and blast it. What a world, eh?