Cancer Lens

a playlist by Eshaana Sheth

I started this playlist sometime after I got diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve always been a writer, so I was devastated by how the trauma and side effects of treatment impacted my ability to write and process details. Journaling was too difficult, so instead I began a playlist to capture different parts of my journey. I’m still adding to it.

This playlist not only helped me feel more comfortable talking about the more traumatic parts of my experience, but it’s also evolved into a record that helps me recall important medical dates and phases of treatment that I often must recount to doctors, therapists, and other providers.

The biggest misconception about breast cancer in young adults is that it ends. Most people do not understand how expansive treatment can be — they only think of mastectomies and chemotherapy. But as oncologists will tell you, it’s a marathon, not a race. My treatment included many phases of overlapping procedures, surgeries, rehab, ongoing maintenance, scans, and long-term treatments. Mix that in with a global pandemic, plus the cognition problems from all the drugs, and you’re left struggling to keep track of things. It’s a full-time job. (The other day I even forgot that I had had lymph nodes removed that have contributed to significant arm pain.)

While I don’t listen to this playlist often because it feels too heavy, I love songs — I always have. I love their brevity and how much you can pack into them. I questioned whether I should share something that feels so private, but there’s also something safe about using these musical texts as companion pieces. They help mythologize your life into a story rather than a biographical account. It’s given me a creative space into which I can project my narrative and compose a soundtrack to my cancer life.

I remember playing Van Halen’s cover of “Pretty Woman” the day I was diagnosed with cancer. It was weird, I don’t even listen to Van Halen. I remember my rendezvous with a volleyball coach on one of several nights I spent attempting to get closure in my body. He said he wasn’t expecting to meet a girl who liked “Carry the Zero” by Built to Spill. I remember listening to “Stanley Climbfall” by Lifehouse with my brothers in the hallway of our childhood home during the “good week” of chemo, like we used to do when we were kids. This was right before the country fell into lockdown the day after my birthday, and I suddenly was at risk of dying from something else. I remember my family’s German shepherd reacting to Enya’s “Caribbean Blue.” She was the only living creature I touched for four months through chemo and radiation, per the medical recommendation at the time. I remember being upset with my oncologist and crying to “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski on the way to an appointment.

Every time I hear “Tití Me Preguntó” by Bad Bunny, I’m reminded of the first time I returned to an LA nightclub in my corset top. Whenever I hear “Marjorie,” Taylor Swift’s tribute to her grandmother, I think of my own grandmother who passed away suddenly from a breast cancer recurrence in December 2020, capping off what I hope will be the worst year of my life. I recall angrily listening to “Space and Time” by Wolf Alice on repeat during the hike that saved my life when the hormonal changes from endocrine therapy made me feel unsafe in my mind. I remember grieving the support system of a guy I fell in-like with while listening to “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton, and then playing “Hard Times” by Paramore during workouts to distract myself from the fact that he had met someone else.

And then there was “Underwater Boi” by Turnstile, which I played on repeat when I was stuck at home alone on the Fourth of July weekend with Covid, which was a cakewalk compared to the time spent as a lonely, sick cancer patient during the pandemic. I remember “Ya Habibti” by Mdou Moctar playing in the title sequence of Olivier Assayas’ show “Irma Vep,” which I binged to pass the time. I remember deciding to give “full” endocrine therapy another shot the day before I saw the Smashing Pumpkins perform “Cherub Rock” live on the eve of the World Cup ’22 kickoff. And I remember spending this summer watching “The Fast and the Furious” films with my friend and his dog to help with the adjustment to endocrine therapy, reliving the nostalgic Y2K tunes like “Ooh Aah (My Life Be Like)” by Grits and TobyMac … recollecting make-out sessions in parking lots with high school boys and all the street racing my mom warned us about in a franchise that I’ve come to realize completely embodies where I grew up.

We arrive in the present, as I continue adding songs as I move through more surgeries and more physical therapy, more trial-and-error with treatment and trial-and-error with the drugs to help with the side effects of treatment. I hope there’s a point I reach where I finally feel like there’s an “end” to all of this, a point where the playlist is finished and my cancer finally feels finished, too. Or at least a new normal in which everything’s not a fucking rollercoaster. I plan for it to happen. I hope for it to happen. OK, it’s going to happen. For now, we have these songs. They may not be my favorites — in fact, I don’t even know if I like some of them. But I’m going to play the cancer card and say you should listen to it, dammit. It’s been important for my survival. Maybe it’ll be important for you, too.