When Cancer Invaded My Life, Running and Music Gave Me Something I’d Always Needed
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to vanish into music. I mean total ego death, pure immersion. I’m not entirely sure why it started, but the most honest explanation is that I wanted to explore it like another world. If that sounds like escapism, that’s fair: I’ve tried alcohol and drugs, but those were more trouble than they were worth. So I built a life around music, hoping for a mere taste of the sublime: I’ve played in bands since my early 20s and spent a decade in music journalism. Sometimes my brain would go blank during a show, but not consistently or reliably.
Then the stakes changed. In 2017, I was blindsided by a flavour of chronic leukaemia at 35 that usually strikes those twice that age. A severe, painful relapse dominated several months of 2021. But the heaviest psychological blow landed in July 2018, when Rachel, my other half, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
By the end of that summer, she was recovering from a double mastectomy, and I was home, helping however I could. It was a new level of intimacy. I’m sure the pain was intense, but Rachel was stoic through all of it. I was not so resilient. Here was the most important person in my world, whom I had the incredible fortune of meeting when we were teenagers, hit with cancer less than a year after leukaemia nearly took me out.
I was not OK. (I’m still not, but I have a very good therapist.) And so, for an hour or so every day of Rachel’s recovery, I slipped away to the gym. I was pulled to the treadmill as if by gravity. I would ramp up the speed, faster and faster, repeating a mantra silently as I did: “Only and always forward.”
Those runs started after my first go with leukaemia in 2017 when I experienced an incredible period of what my therapist calls post-traumatic growth. One major change: exercise, which I had never done before. Sure, I half-assed track and cross country in high school, but it was purely social. Once I’d been to the edge of my mortality and peeked over, I came away driven. If I was going to survive, I was going to thrive.
“I chose songs like they were medicine. When I felt brutalised by our luck, I sought the hardest and realest hip-hop…
That’s when I discovered that an intense run delivered the effect I’d been searching for since adolescence. It erased the self, paused the mind, and allowed me to disappear completely into a song. There was no other conduit like it. It grounded and centered me to move forward through hell. I loved it.
I chose songs like they were medicine. When I felt brutalised by our luck, I sought the hardest and realest hip-hop: the Kenny Segal and Billy Woods masterpiece Hiding Places or the genius himself, GZA. When I needed calming reassurance, I lost myself in something mid-tempo and melancholy: Spiritualised or the War on Drugs. When I needed reminding that hard times are universal, Emmylou Harris, the Carter Family, and Loretta Lynn welcomed me to the great communion of those who have been through some shit. When I needed to simply shake off the dread, I grooved to Future Islands and Beck.
Then one day the music spoke back to me. I remember the date: January 4, 2022. It was a cold, clear morning. I laced up my Altras, hit shuffle on my playlist, and went. Less than a year earlier, during my spring 2021 relapse, I could hardly walk. But by that next January, I was logging more miles than ever.
I’ve been reminded, time and again, how quickly everything can collapse. I know how helpless a person becomes when cancer asserts itself. Through dumb luck and cutting-edge treatment at the UNC’s cancer centre, Rachel and I have kept our footing. And when I’m well enough to run, I run.
That day, I started at the library, then I was off through downtown and up and down the longest hill in town—all by pure routine.
Then Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band popped up in my headphones: “Badlands,” all snap and bombast and so much saxophone, a song I’ve heard a thousand times. “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” Springsteen sang, and for the first time I truly heard him. The tension left my body. I floated forward—breath going in, feet landing on the pavement and lifting again, breath going out; my mind finally, effortlessly, contentedly blank.