Medical Examiner

What’s a Good Playlist for Fighting Cancer?

Turns out you can request songs during radiation treatments. But, what to pick?

Woman receiving radiation therapy wearing headphones with a person performing at a DJ setup in the foreground.
Franco Zacharzewski

After a recent diagnosis of the tiniest bit of Stage 1 invasive breast cancer, I was prescribed four weeks of daily radiation treatments. Before I started the monthlong Monday-to-Friday slog, a variety of nurses and doctors warned me about side effects to expect—mostly tiredness and the sort of sunburn one might get after sunbathing topless and drunk (not their words). Several people even mentioned that the radiation technicians might ask what music I’d like to listen to while on the table; the literature that got sent home with me, and which I’d actually read, also noted this. And yet, on Day 1 of my treatments, I turned up entirely unprepared.

This should not have been the case! I love music! I mean, who doesn’t … except, well, I really do! I used to make my living as a music journalist. I own everything from the Smithsonian jazz collection to the Nuggets four-disc compilation of psychedelic pop. So I surprised myself when, on Day 1, I choked and muttered, “Classical?”

The technician, a middle-aged British woman named Heather, asked, “Anything specific?” and I made the mistake of saying no.

I don’t love the Nutcracker on a good day—even when watching a wonderful live production of it during the holidays with my delighted daughters. So for the relentlessly lively strings of “The Russian Dance” to pour into the room while technicians lined a machine up to the small marker tattoos I’d been given the week before, well, it just seemed cruel. Mercifully, treatments only last a few minutes.

When I left the room, I resolved that tomorrow I’d do better.

I requested Hamilton.

Heather happily complied, but I quickly realized I didn’t want to spoil “My Shot” by having it tied to radiation. It would be foolish to choose favorite songs, wouldn’t it? That meant “Drive It Like You Stole It” from Sing Street was out; likewise, anything off Lost Friends by the Australian band Middle Kids, which was in heavy rotation in my life at the time.

I was still without a playlist when I arrived on Day 3, so when Heather asked if the ’80s hits station she had playing was fine, I said sure.

Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” came on. It made me feel … old. I lay there thinking about how I was 14 when that song came out. Fourteen! Barely breasted! Still, I felt lighter knowing that this was Heather’s default mode. The ’80s seemed like a safe place, provided The Joshua Tree didn’t come on.

Day 4 brought Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” perfectly benign and lovely and right. Then Day 5 caught me off guard because there was a new technician and she didn’t take requests, but she had some jazz playing so whatever. One week down and three to go, plus I had the weekend off! Next week, though. Next week I’d have a playlist. I had the whole weekend to figure it out.

Here’s the thing about U2’s The Joshua Tree: The universe and I conspired to make it the soundtrack for my mother’s death by breast cancer when I was 16. It was 1987 and U2 was just … everywhere. For me, anyway. They were on the radio of the yellow sports car driven by my boyfriend of several months, who would soon prove unsuited for the job of dealing with my grief. They were piped into stores at the Staten Island Mall, where I shopped for funeral clothes with my godmother. Obviously, I’d bought the album and practically worn it out on the record player in my bedroom. It was in heavy rotation when my mother was in the hospital, and even when she was in a hospital bed in the living room waiting to die. The songs sank into me so deeply that summer that even years later, when I’d be driving and hear one on the radio, I’d think for a second that I might have to pull over and cry.

When that effect subsided, I started to take a song from The Joshua Tree coming on as a sign from beyond. It was my mom sending a message when a DJ dropped “With or Without You” after I’d just been dumped. It meant she thought he wasn’t right for me anyway. It was my mom talking to me on the BQE when I sat stalled in traffic running late for a job interview, telling me I didn’t actually want the job via “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Who needed a mother when you had U2 songs?

I’d been reassured by my medical team that my cancer was totally treatable, by the way—caught so very early, unlike my mother’s. But I still worried what might become of my daughters should I repeat my mother’s fate. What would their soundtrack be? It was Lion King season for the girls in their musical theater school. Would “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata” end up being their trigger music? I couldn’t stand the thought of that. I owed them better than no worries for the rest of their life. So I resolved that if it ever came to that I’d make them a playlist for surviving because that’s what The Joshua Tree had always felt like for me.

I did not, however, want that playlist in the treatment room.

Heather put Hamilton on again on Monday without asking, and it felt foolish to revolt. Tuesday was some ’80s song I don’t recall, and then on Wednesday—Day 8—there was a surprise guest from the ’70s in Heather’s ’80s mix. It was a hilariously bad song to have come on, given the circumstances—a song by a band I’d seen live at Madison Square Garden with my parents in 1977 when I was just 7 years old, a band my mother had loved.

It was the Bee Gees. “Stayin’ Alive.”

I mean, COME ON! It was so wrong it was right. Since my husband and I had been using a fair amount of gallows humor (onco-jokes, we called them) as a coping mechanism, we had a good laugh. I even texted some friends about it, and everyone was suitably horrified.

Things got even funnier when “The Final Countdown” came on the next day. I lay there unable to remember whether it was Asia or Europe who’d recorded it—a continent, at any rate—and couldn’t wait to be done so I could tell my friends.

If Heather had been there on that Friday—Day 10—I would have requested Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer,” because I was halfway there, but it was the jazz lady again.

The following Monday, Heather went back to Hamilton but wanted to vary the track for me so, for reasons that are still unclear, resorted to YouTube. The music cut out at some point and was replaced by the sound of small children doing some kind of unboxing, their voices mostly inaudible.

Tuesday was Madonna—“Like a Virgin,” which made it hard not to laugh. By this point in my wee cancer journey, I’d been touched—my breast anyway—by so many people that I’d lost count. Meanwhile, since I was finally experiencing some side effects, I mused about requesting the Violent Femmes—“Blister in the Sun.” I didn’t and was instead treated to an international twofer of “Land Down Under” and “One Night in Bangkok.” Then it was jazzy Friday again and I was three-fourths done.

We’d taken a quick vacation before radiation, since there was a school break on the calendar and there was no point in sitting around dreading the month of treatments. Our Palm Springs adventure was plagued with problems (that’s another essay), but the one thing that went well was a daytrip to Joshua Tree National Park. It was a sort of bucket-list destination for me even though I knew that the photo on the album wasn’t actually taken there.

We almost messed things up entirely, though. When we set out that morning, I got into the car, realized our error, and said, “Shoot.”

My husband, in the driver’s seat, said, “What?”

“I was going to download The Joshua Tree.

He nodded once. “I’ll wait.”

I went back into the hotel lobby to hop on the Wi-Fi.

It’s probably a silly thing to do, to cue up The Joshua Tree at the gates of Joshua Tree. We did it anyway. And when I heard the opening notes of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the usual flood of emotions that that glorious intro usually washes over me had the crest of a new sensation: I felt powerful.

I felt like I wasn’t going to die, except that we’re all going to die, so I also felt like it would be fine if I did, because that was life and there was no logic to it. There seems also to be no logic to Joshua trees. Their blooms, if you want to call them that, are random seeming—sprouting wherever they want—and their joints and bends arbitrary. Each individual tree—who knew there’d be so many of them?—looks like a thing that should not exist at all (like us?). The whole park is magical, really—otherworldly, in the true sense of the word. The day felt like visiting several distant planets, each more surprising than the next. We listened to the whole Joshua Tree album. Twice. The children didn’t even complain about it (magical!).

We brought colored pencils and a sketch pad to dinner that night, to entertain the 8-year-old. We all drew Joshua trees. I’d never felt more fully alive.

When I was down to my fourth and final week, I was beyond excited, ready to be done with all of this. But when I walked into the treatment room, the vibe was all wrong: “And he shall live forever and ever …

“Really?” I said to Heather. “The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus?”

“Oh, I’ll change it,” she said. “The last person requested it.”

She set me up with ’80s—A-ha and “Take On Me”—and that was fine. I lay there wondering if I could still play it on the piano and also wondering what kind of person requests Handel’s Messiah during radiation—had I passed him or her in the waiting room? Then I wondered whether I’d gone about the whole thing wrong. Maybe I should have been loading my brain up with positive messages through song the entire time—even keeping with the ’80s theme for Heather: “Shake the Disease” by Depeche Mode, or Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” or Matthew Wilder’s “(Ain’t Nothing Gonna) Break My Stride.”

Or maybe I should have gone the other way and specifically requested tracks from The Joshua Tree every day and somehow tapped into all the fear and grief and maternal connection and (now) power that it held for me. It wouldn’t ruin the album—it was already ruined (but also not ruined because it’s still one of my favorite albums of all time, because … how could it not be?).

Either way, at the end of the session, I was done with Heather, as I would move onto a different machine for the last four more targeted zaps. She wished me well, and I thought I might cry and told her I hoped to never see her again.

The vibe on the “boost” machine was sort of a shock to the system after all this: OLDIES! Ritchie Valens and “Donna.” What a revelation. I had been doing it all wrong, just not in the ways I’d thought. I should have had fluffy ’60s ditties spinning the whole time.

I was so close to end of the four weeks now that I started to feel giddy. That old Fountains of Wayne song “Radiation Vibe” popped into my head—don’t it make you wanna get some sun?—and I started playing it over and over and over and over.

Shine on! Shine on! Shine on!

I spoke to Bono on the phone once. It was the year after I’d graduated college, and I was living abroad, working at a music magazine in Dublin. For whatever reason, the receptionist wasn’t at the front desk. I picked up and said, “Hot Press,” and the person said, “Yeah, can I speak with Niall Stokes, please?”

“Can I tell him who’s calling?” I asked.

He said, “Bono.”

I put him on hold and watched the blinking light for a long moment. I wanted to pick the phone back up and tell him everything. About the useless boyfriend with the yellow car and the awful floral skirt I’d ended up buying for the funeral and how The Joshua Tree had somehow managed, over time, to make that most unimaginable loss manageable.

I put the call through.

You get to ring a bell on the wall in the waiting area when you complete your treatments. People bring their family and friends and everyone waiting claps for you. So my husband came with me on my last day. He filmed me ringing the bell and waving so we could show our girls, and the waiting room erupted in applause. The treatment music had been disappointing jazz, but it didn’t matter; I felt again the way I had when I’d arrived at the gates of Joshua Tree with the family I’d created in the wake of that awful loss of my youth listening to the exact right music.

I felt old and young and alive and random and in control and out of control. I felt relieved and afraid and strong and even sort of wise. I felt like going to bed or dancing. I felt like blasting music—any music—with the windows down on a highway through the desert.

The Joshua tree in the photo on U2’s album was actually at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park. The band was on a road trip between Reno and Joshua Tree and stopped along 190 when their photographer Anton Corbijn spotted the lone tree. Joshua trees usually grow in clusters, so the isolated tree was an anomaly. The album hadn’t been named yet.

It’s dead now, that tree. Felled by winds in 2000. My cancer, which was also hopefully an anomaly, is dead now, too.

Life doesn’t always hand you a playlist. But it does, on occasion, give you just the right metaphor.