CJ Baker is a published writer who recently started the podcast Ongoing History of Protest Music.
Joey Ramone's Headstone
Cancer Affects Us All
Cancer has tragically impacted most of our lives. Even if we have had the good fortune not to have been diagnosed with cancer, we most likely have a friend or a family member who has.
Everyone has their own way of dealing with the impact of this dreaded disease. Making and listening to music is a common way to deal with hardship, one that might offer some comfort and catharsis.
A musician might deal with the disease by writing songs about it. There have been numerous songs written about cancer, songs that address the subject from many different perspectives. Some deal with cancer from the insider's perspective while other songs relate the experience of afflicted loved ones. Some of these songs are sombre, some are angry, and some are positive, while others address the illness with humor and wit.
Here is a list of 15 songs about cancer, presented in chronological order.
Deep Blue--George Harrison
This song was originally released as a b-side to the 1971 charity single "Bangla Desh." It has since been released as part of the 2006 reissue of George Harrison's 1973 album, Living in the Material World.
Harrison wrote this song in response to his mother Louise's death to cancer. His lyrics refer to frequent hospital visits and relate the helplessness of watching a loved one die in the hospital:
"When you stand there, watch tired bodies
Full of sickness and pain to show you
Just how helpless you really are
When you get down to the truth, it hurts me …"
The song is definitely mournful and it is hard not to get choked up listening to it.
George Harrison himself would succumb to lung cancer on November 29th, 2001 at the age of 58.
Video of George Harrison's Deep Blue
Death Disco--Public Image Ltd
This 1979 song was written by Johnny Lyndon (aka Johnny Rotten) as an angry response to his mother Eileen's cancer death. In a June 7th, 2010 BBC interview he described the song as a form of "shout therapy." His song details how his mom was treated badly by the church and how the church refused to perform her last rites at the hospital where she died.
The torment Lydon experienced is well expressed in the following lyrics:
"Watch her slowly die
Saw it in her eyes
Chokin' on a bed
Flowers rotting dead
Seen it in her eyes
Ending in a day
Silence was a way."
Video of Death Disco by Public Image Ltd
I have a special fondness for this song because of a conversation I once had. I was at a restaurant and after a number of refills on my black coffee, the waitress felt the need to inform me that her grandma told her that black coffee is a cause of cancer of the esophagus. When I asked her what else her grandma said causes cancer, she laughed and said that her grandma thinks everything gives you cancer.
When compiling this list I debated including this song because my original intent was to choose songs that dealt with the subject from a more serious perspective. This song takes a more satirical slant with the chorus "everything gives you cancer." That being said, it does provide a social commentary on the paranoia about cancer.
"Cancer" is from Joe Jackson's 1982 album, Night and Day.
Video of Cancer by Joe Jackson
Causes of Cancer Poll
Tank Park Salute--Billy Bragg
"Tank Park Salute" is from Billy Bragg's 1991 album Don't Try This at Home. The song is a heartfelt tribute to his father Dennis Bragg who died of lung cancer when Billy was 18.
"Some photographs of a summer's day
A little boy's lifetime away
Is all I've left of everything we've done
Like a pale moon in a sunny sky
Death gazes down as I pass by
To remind me that I'm but my father's son"
Video of Tank Park Salute by Billy Bragg
Until It Sleeps--Metallica
"Until It Sleeps" is one of two songs on Metallica's 1996 album, Load, which speak about James Hetfield's mother's losing battle with cancer. The other song, "Mama Said," deals more with Hetfield's relationship with his mom, while "Until It Sleeps" deals directly with the illness itself.
The pain described in the lyrics is intense, but Hetfield has never explained if the song describes his mother's physical agony or his own emotional pain. Either way, the song works on a very powerful level. It is also a bit of a departure for Metallica who were not really known for writing personal tunes (and some detractors viewed this as a sell out).
"So tear me open and pour me out
There's things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me until it sleeps"
Video for Metallica's Until It Sleeps
Dead of Winter--Eels
"Dead of Winter" came from the Eels's 1998 album Electro-Shock Blues, a particularly dark album in which most of the songs either deal with the suicide of front man Mark E. Everett's mentally ill sister or his mother's death to cancer. "Dead of Winter" is an emotional centerpiece of the album, and it deals with his mom's radiation treatment and death to lung cancer.
"So I know you're going pretty soon
Radiation sore throat got your tongue
Magic markers tattoo you
And show it where to aim
And strangers break their promises
You won't feel any
You won't feel any pain."
I can't listen to this song without getting goosebumps.
Dead of Winter by Eels (Video)
Thief--Our Lady Peace
"Thief," from Our Lady Peace's 1999 album, Happiness... Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch, was written for a young girl named Mina Kim who was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. The "thief" refers to the tumor.
"I can't see that thief
That lives inside of your head
But I can be some courage at
The side of you bed
I don't know what's happening
And I can't pretend"
To add further emotional impact to the song, the young girl singing at the end (a short snippet of a Sunday school song, "Little By Little,") happens to be Mina Kim, who died of cancer before the video came out.
Video of Thief by Our Lady Peace
I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)--Joey Ramone
"I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)" is from Joey Ramone's 2002 posthumously released album, Don't Worry About Me. This is the first song on the list that speaks from the first person perspective of a cancer sufferer.
The song displays the punk rock godfather's defiant, fighting spirit in the face of death. It may start off with sombre lyrics like "Sitting in a hospital bed/Frustration going through my head," "I want my life," and "it really sucks," but the song ends on a hopeful, resilient note: "I got knocked down but I'll get up."
Sadly, Joey Ramone lost his fight on April 15th, 2001. Cancer may have taken his life but it did not extinguish his legacy. He will be remembered forever.
Video for I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up) by Joey Ramone
Joey Ramone Place
The Remedy (I Won't Worry)--Jason Mraz
Mraz wrote this song about his good friend Charlie Mingroni's survival from cancer and how it changed Mraz's outlook on life. "The Remedy (I Won't Worry)" was the breakthrough hit from his 2002 album, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, and it may very well be the most positive and upbeat song ever written about cancer.
"The remedy is the experience
this is a dangerous liaison
I says the comedy is that it's serious.
This is a strange enough new play on words
I say the tragedy is how you're gonna spend
the rest of your nights with the light on
so shine the light on all of your friends
when it all amounts to nothing in the end.
I won't worry my life away."
The Remedy (I Won't Worry) by Jason Mraz (Video)
"Dance" is from Nas' 2002 album God's Son. This beautiful song displays a sensitivity and emotional vulnerability that is rarely seen in rap music. Nas makes an emotional plea to have one last opportunity to have one last dance with his mom who died of cancer. No doubt anyone who has ever lost someone to cancer can relate to the wish of one last time.
"Jesus finally got his bride, mommy dance with him
And you've been my guide through all the trouble I faced
They playing our song the life beat my hand on your waist
I grab your other hand and try not to step on your toes
Spin you around with my eyes closed"
Video for Dance by Nas
Knockin' on Heaven's Door--Warren Zevon
Bob Dylan's original version of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" was not specifically written about cancer. That being said, when the song is performed by someone who is in the process of dying from cancer, the lyrics take on that meaning.
Warren Zevon's version of the Bob Dylan classic was released on his 2003 album The Wind, which was released just two weeks before his death on September 7, 2003. Because of Zevon's morbid sense of humor, it is hard to tell if he is being ironic by covering this song. Regardless, it is hard to deny the emotional impact of his performance.
During his October 30th, 2002 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, Letterman asked if he knew something more about life and death since being diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma (a type of abdomen cancer caused by asbestos exposure), and Zevon offered the following insight: "Enjoy every sandwich."
He definitely died with his sense of humor intact.
Knockin' on Heaven's Door by Warren Zevon (Video)
1976 Photo of Warren Zevon
Live Like You Were Dying--Tim McGraw
"Live Like You Were Dying" is from McGraw's 2004 album of the same name. The song deals with a dying father's advice to live life to the fullest. Even though McGraw didn't write the song, it resonated with his experience with his father, former major league baseball relief pitcher Tug McGraw.
"I went sky diving
I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds
On a bull named Fu Manchu
And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter
And gave forgiveness I'd been denying
And he said some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying."
Truth be told, I have an aversion to "new" country music and I am not really a fan of Tim McGraw. That being said, the more I thought about it, there was no way I could exclude it from this list. Despite any genre or artist bias, you can't deny the message of the song.
Video of Live Like You Were Dying by Tim McGraw
Casimir Pulaski Day--Sufjan Stevens
"Casimir Pulaski Day" is from Sufjan Stevens's 2005 album Illinois. In interviews, Stevens has said that this song is about his first experience with death, losing someone to bone cancer when he was in his teens. The song also deals with dealing with grief and addresses the natural tendency to question God.
"On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom
In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window."
It is an emotionally beautiful piece of art.
Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens: Video
Cancer--My Chemical Romance
"Cancer" is from My Chemical Romance's 2006 album, The Black Parade, a concept album that relates the story of a patient dying of cancer, so it is no surprise that there is a song on the album directly dealing with cancer. "Cancer" is an emotionally heartbreaking song, and it is hard to listen to without getting choked up.
"All my agony,
Know that I will never marry,
Baby, I'm just soggy from the chemo,
But counting down the days to go.
It just ain't living."
Video of Cancer by My Chemical Romance
Songs About Cancer Poll
Tragic Turn of Events/Move Pen Move--Dan Mangan & Shane Koyczan
"Tragic Turn of Events/Move Pen Move" is a collaborative effort between singer/songwriter Dan Mangan & spoken word artist/poet Shane Koyczan. This composition appeared on Mangan's 2009 EP, Roboteering.
Koyczan provides the emotionally gripping narrative about watching his mother die from cancer, in which he grapples with the fact that his mom is ready to give up but he is not ready to say goodbye. Mangan's vocal & lyrical contributions provide further emotional impact. This song definitely packs an emotional wallop.
"Running back home
'Cause I gotta play nurse
Gotta figure out
Which pill alleviates which pain
Which part of your brain is being used for a
Boxing bag as your body became a never
Ending game of freeze tag
Taking place in an empty playground
I was left looking for your limbs
In a lost and found
And I couldn't set you free."
A sense of helplessness is powerfully conveyed.
Video: Tragic Turn of Events/Move Pen Move by Dan Mangan & Shane Koyczan
© 2013 CJ Baker
Are there any songs about cancer that you would like to share? Feel free to leave any other feedback.
isisimages on January 24, 2015:
Great list... but you forgot the WHOLE album Magic and Loss, Lou Reed.
. on June 05, 2014:
The Fighter by Gym Class Heroes
Im not sure if its about cancer or not but its about fighting and perservering through hard times. I have a loved one batteling cancer and i listen to it when we're down. It's a very upbeat song and i think it and its lyrics should be recognized more
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on May 26, 2013:
Thanks Shinkicker. I thought it was a fascinating subject. Music is an outlet to deal with personal issues. Not only is it an outlet for the listener, but it is an outlet for the creator.
Shinkicker from Scotland on May 26, 2013:
Very original idea to write a Hub on this subject. Interesting and sensitively written.
Thanks for a fascinating read.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on February 11, 2013:
Thanks Leah! I never fully realized the scope until I decided to write this hub. Many songs I were familiar with I did not make the connection. I appreciate the read and the comment!
Leah Lefler from Western New York on February 11, 2013:
I had no idea so many songs were written about cancer - I'll never listen to "I Get Knocked Down" in the same way again. Great hub, spartucusjones!
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on February 10, 2013:
Thanks Chrissie for the read & the comment! I am glad that I provided ideas for a playlist! All the best with your cancer walk!
chrissieklinger from Pennsylvania on February 10, 2013:
Nice mix of music. I am doing a cancer walk in October and might have to make a playlist with these songs to listen to while I walk 60 miles!
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on February 10, 2013:
Thanks Faith Reaper! Believe it or not there are many more songs about cancer that I did not include. But these 15 songs best reflected what I wanted to accomplish with this hub. I truly appreciate the read, comment, vote and share!
Faith Reaper from southern USA on February 09, 2013:
Wow, amazing hub . . . I mean really amazing! I really enjoyed this entire hub. Excellent work here. And I believe you have covered every song about cancer there is to cover. Being a cancer survivor and, of course, having had loved ones to die from cancer, I really appreciate the great care you have taken to write this hub and make it really unique and clever. The music is beyond awesome, and the various polls are great.
Voted way up ++++ and sharing for sure
God bless you. In His Love, Faith Reaper