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Songs About Cancer

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CJ Baker is a published writer who wrote the novel and started the companion podcast An Epic Soundtrack To A Mundane Existence.

Joey Ramone's Headstone

Headstone of Jeff Hyman (aka Joey Ramone) who tragically succumbed to lymphoma (a type of blood cancer) on April 15th, 2001.

Headstone of Jeff Hyman (aka Joey Ramone) who tragically succumbed to lymphoma (a type of blood cancer) on April 15th, 2001.

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

Cancer Poll

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

Cancer--Joe Jackson

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"

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

Sign honoring Joey Ramone just outside of the legendary club CBGB in New York.

Sign honoring Joey Ramone just outside of the legendary club CBGB in New York.

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)