Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Music and Prostate Cancer: One Man's Story

By Dana Jennings
I have prostate cancer, and sometimes I get mad. Not upset. Not annoyed. Not nettled. Mad. This isn’t mere “why me” moaning. My rage is pure and primal, like that of a wolf caught in a steel trap.
Dana Jennings. (Lonnie Schlein/The New York Times)
My anger, though, doesn’t arrive when and where you’d think it would. Gliding into the radiation machine, getting a hormone shot and wearing mini-man-pads don’t set me off. It’s smaller, less expected, things, like a fellow customer being mean and rude to the server behind the counter at Starbucks, or a car busting a red light as I walk to my New York office.
That kind of behavior has always bothered me on some level. But since I learned that I have cancer, I react differently. I’ve walked the streets of New York for decades, and not thought twice about the cars that run red lights and nearly nail me and other pedestrians. It’s a fact of life in the big city, like rats on the subway tracks. I used to shrug and keep walking.
Prostate Cancer Journal
One Man’s Story
Dana Jennings blogs about his experience with prostate cancer.
After Cancer, the Echo of Desire
10 Lessons of Prostate Cancer
Real Men Get Prostate Cancer
Since my diagnosis last April, though, and especially since my prostatectomy last July, it has not been so easy for me to shrug it off. Perhaps it’s because prostate cancer and its treatment have left me feeling vulnerable. Now, it’s as if a heedless speeding car pulls some small biological trigger of agitation that too quickly metastasizes into rage. Suddenly, I’m howling at the traffic. If I could, I’d turn green and bellow: “Hulk smash!!!”
In utter mortification, I admit that I have shocked at least a couple of drivers with a quick thump to the rear-ends of their cars. I’m not proud of this. But it’s almost as if, in certain situations, my cancer is granting me permission to tap a dark and ugly passion. My tolerance for bad behavior has vanished, and I have trouble keeping my mouth shut. And anger, no matter how bitter, still tastes good, at least for a moment.
But I hate it. It’s bad enough having a cancer of the body without having a cancer of the spirit, too. It’s all part of the emotional Tilt-a-Whirl that arrives with cancer — not just anger, but the occasional sighs and tears, the despair and depression. Doctors do a good job of treating the physical aspects of prostate cancer, but what about the psyche that’s been scraped red and raw?
I work hard not to let my cancer get me down. I believe in the power of kindness and gratitude, and my good cheer is not a pose. But we all have our weaknesses. I’m haunted by the uncertainty caused by my aggressive cancer. And when I see people plowing through this world, self-centered and unaware, their obliviousness strikes me as a deadly sin. I can’t lash out at my cancer … but I can lash out at them.
I am trying to cope, trying to damp those flash fires. Spending time with my wife and family helps; so does writing in my journal. But in scanning my large collection of CDs a few months ago, I noticed a few heavy-metal albums I hadn’t listened to in a long time. It struck me as the right music for my mood, and the result has been my own unorthodox form of music therapy. I’ve learned that heavy-metal music leaches away my fury the way a poultice draws poison from a wound.
I crave heavy bands like Slayer and Meshuggah, Pantera and Sepultera, Isis and Neurosis. Prostate cancer seems especially suited for heavy-metal music therapy. According to Dan Nelson’s book “All Known Metal Bands,” I could let my ears pound and bleed to such disease-specific headbangers as Cancer and Metastasis, Scars of Chaos and Scars of Suffering, and Surgikill Incision.
So you know, I don’t fit the music’s clichéd demographic. I have no piercings (my 25 surgical staples are long gone) or tattoos (except for the four black microdots used in my radiation treatment), I do not scrawl hexagrams on my walls, and I like goat cheese but not goat sacrifice.
But music has always been one of the ways I understand myself, interpret myself and this world. I’ve written about bluegrass, Cajun music and the Grand Ole Opry for The Times, and I wrote a book about classic country — “Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death and Country Music” — that was published last spring around the time of my diagnosis.
Different kinds of music say different things to me. Country retells my story of growing up poor and rural, reminds me that I come from a small town in New Hampshire where my relations lived their lives through the songs of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. Jazz, especially the slowest, the bluest notes and tones of Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley, settle me down before I fall asleep, can soften the edges of my melancholy. But it’s metal that helps see me through when my temper tumbles over the edge. Its anger blunts my anger, in the same way that a backfire can be used to fight a forest fire.
I rasp and roar along with System of a Down on the song “Toxicity.” As I sing the lyrics, “How do you own disorder, disorder?” I’m also hurling that question at the health-industrial complex and the bureaucracy that has nothing to do with making people well. As I listen to Metallica’s album “Master of Puppets” or Mastodon’s “Leviathan” (wearing the black System of a Down hoodie that my sons gave me), I grit my teeth and perform air-guitar exorcisms. Songs like Metallica’s “Damage Inc.” and Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder” resonate in my gut and feel like heavy-metal radiation therapy.
Never mind scalpels or robots, the squall of those razor-wire notes seems sharp enough to cut out any cancer.
It seems to be helping. All my fear, anger and alienation are vented in those bands’ savage, guitar-driven engines. Heavy-metal inoculation talks me down from the ledge of my rage, lets me take a deep breath, then shrug — even at a car running a red light.

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