In 2010, I was diagnosed with cancer, and doctors wanted me to get surgery removing my thyroid. I said no thank you. Instead, I walked into my kitchen and pulled out almost everything in my refrigerator and cabinet, giving it away to friends and family. I met with leaders of a local vegan group, and putting together what they told me with what I already knew, I went on a diet that was all-organic, vegan, with no gluten, soy, sweeteners of any kind, or fried foods.
The transition was brutal. I’m not going to lie, I felt like hell and nearly fainted just from short walks. Then, one month into it, I felt as if I were on an elevator that fell down several floors. After that plummeting sensation, I felt amazing. And following that transformational moment, I felt consistently fantastic, with more energy than I’d had since my 20s.
I work as a public relations manager for wellness practitioners, and over the coming years, my life and work intersected with astounding synchronicity. Every time I reached a crossroads in my healing journey, I ended up working with a new client who had whatever critical piece of information I needed, to take the next step in my healing journey. And so, over the years, I incorporated juicing (including two month-long juice fasts), supplements, a primarily raw foods diet, “clean” animal products, guided imagery, and other lifestyle changes. Through these measures, I cold-stopped the growth of the nodules, which remained stable for five years – until I moved to Seattle and started a punk rock band, following which the nodules began shrinking.
I was not only ecstatic but also, suddenly, exhausted – like the mountaineer who finally makes it back from the trek. Hanging up with my doctor after receiving the good news, I called every person who had supported me on my journey, thanking them, and promptly did a face-plant in bed, at 5:00 pm.
For a couple months after, I felt a delicious sense of relaxation and ease, with the nonstop cancer-cancer-cancer background noise suddenly quiet. Then, in the fall of 2015, a careless and callous neighbor created a situation that shot my stress levels through the roof, for four months straight. My next ultrasound and blood work, right on the heels of that period, indicated that the nodules had grown by a whopping 15% and that my cholesterol and blood sugar levels had skyrocketed, the former to dangerous levels – suddenly putting me at risk of heart disease on top of the cancer.
I felt devastated.
The situation with the neighbor had by then calmed down, however, and I trusted that by simply continuing with my lifestyle and coming back into balance, I’d be able to stop and reverse the growth of the nodules. The very fact that the nodules had grown so fast during a period of high stress, after all, only served to reinforce the cancer/lifestyle relationship.
A few months later, unbelievably, that neighbor struck again, in a way that was both literally and figuratively toxic, with chemicals that permeated my home and made me physically ill. I decided that as much as I loved my house and the area where I was living, it was time to leave. As long as I was leaving, I figured, I might as well put my belongings into storage and travel, as my work is location-independent, requiring only internet service and a table. And so, on July 4, which I declared as my independence day, I took off with a one-way ticket to Hawaii.
I spent two months on the island of Kauai – swimming in the ocean, kayaking in the rivers, hiking in the mountains, biking on the coastal path, and drumming on the beach. Miraculously, I landed in a countryside unit next door to a farm – overlooking the ocean on one side and the mountains on another. The place had a gourmet kitchen and even a grand piano, which I played and composed on daily. I started going to bed early and waking up before dawn – walking to the beach to sit on the rocks, dangle my feet in the water, and watch the sun rise, as the birds dove into and soared over the surf in the distance. It was glorious and profoundly healing.
During this period, I had several life-altering moments, where I realized that drumming, dancing, call-and-response communal singing, writing, and nature (in particular, water) are essential to my wellness, each playing a different role in my whole-being transformation. On my last full day romping around Kauai, I swam in the ocean, while an African dance troupe – with which I had drummed before – practiced on the shore. I alternately swam, danced, splashed, and ululated in rhythm to the drum beats, feeling ecstatic and vibrantly alive. As the sun began to set, I floated on my back and whispered, “This is my medicine.”
After leaving Hawaii, I intended to just pass through Seattle and stay with a friend for a couple of weeks, en route to the East Coast, Europe, and Middle East. But the Universe had different plans for me, and following my heart in response to changing circumstance, I instead moved into a house in a small forest town, right near the water, a couple hours outside Seattle, and relaunched my punk rock band – among other things, integrating call-and-response communal songs, from my Iraqi Jewish heritage, and writing original songs that are channeled prayers for my healing, like Live and Flourish.
My music is my soul is my heart is my prayer is my medicine.
There are those who would scoff at the idea of music as medicine, of course, and say that it is foolhardy to reject surgical and pharmaceutical responses to cancer. As a teacher of mine once said, however, “There is no safe way to do a dangerous thing.” Whatever path we choose for our response to cancer, holistic or conventional, there are risks involved and examples of people who have both thrived and died.
Take that of Shin Terayama, whose case is documented in The New York Times bestselling book, Radical Remission, by Kelly Turner PhD. Hospitalized for five months, undergoing the gamut of conventional cancer treatments, Terayama was ultimately released and sent home to die, in anywhere between one and three months. He not only returned home, however, but also returned to his lost love of music, and along with other lifestyle changes, is vibrantly alive today, a quarter century later, traveling the world and teaching people how to self-heal from cancer.
I began reading Turner’s book after my initial sojourn into the forest, after I had relaunched my band. Not only was I deeply moved by the story of healing through music, but I also was struck by the story of how Turner came to write the book: While working as a counselor for cancer patients at a large cancer research hospital, she read Andrew Weil’s book, Spontaneous Remission, where she discovered a story of radical remission from cancer. How could she be working at a major cancer institute but know nothing about the existence of radical remission, she wondered.
Turner did her own research and discovered that there were at least 1,000 such radical remission cases documented in peer reviewed medical journals. Her book has since added international cases of radical remission to the mix, and in the introduction to her book, she makes an impassioned call to the medical community to actively seek out, study, and inform people with cancer about the radical remission phenomenon.
Meanwhile, regardless of how much scientific data there is about the healing power of music, never mind dance, nature, writing, and other holistic measures I have added to the mix, it is a highly personal choice how we want to live and respond to health challenges. While the path I have chosen has been far from easy, it has been a tremendous adventure, in which I have discovered so much about myself, the people surrounding me, and my world, and in which I have had extraordinary experiences and met exceptional people. I do not believe that everything happens for a reason, but I figure, as long as it happened, why not make something awesome out of it?