This story is part of the new “Music & Healing” initiative that we’ll discuss on February 28th at our Amplify Austin Watch Party. To learn more and RSVP, click here.


Our Director of Education, Dr. Travis Marcum, has been collaborating with the Livestrong Cancer Institute’s new CaLM Clinic, opening this spring, at the UT Dell Medical School. Their goal is to build a holistic approach to cancer treatment, and ACG’s role will be a music-wellness service that includes learning opportunities, personal-story song writing, and performances. He was paired with a cancer patient to develop a process for musically conveying her journey, and together they wrote a beautiful song that you can listen to here. We recently had the chance to sit down with Christina and hear about her experience.


Christina

A loving mother, wife, computer programmer, knitting aficionado, and athlete, Christina is spunky, matter-of-fact, and fearless. Her willingness to persevere and accomplish whatever she sets her mind to has driven her to run marathons, craft complex and time-consuming knits and quilts, and apply for her dream job.

She never thought she’d win the web developer position for her favorite knitting website, but the motivation to apply despite her skepticism led to her appointment as one of only four full-time employees on Ravelry. The tiny staff works remotely from three states around the country, and provides a knitting and crocheting community resource for a following of 8.5 million members around the world.

“There’s not really anyone else that does what we do. The biggest non-English speaking contingent is in Germany, because knitting is really popular there – you can buy yarn in grocery stores. Also, about 20% of Iceland’s population is on Ravelry.”

Christina was lifting weights and running multiple times a week when she began to notice back pain. She thought it was from strenuous exercise, but as she began to investigate the cause, she learned it was due to a tumor pressing against her tailbone. She’s been in treatment for a majority of the past three and a half years.

CaLM

Recently, she was asked to be a member of the CaLM Clinic’s Advisory Board.

“I was hesitant because my cancer is chronic, meaning it won’t be cured, so my time is precious. I think really hard about the time I spend away from my family. But I decided this sounded like an exciting opportunity, and it’s been so much more fulfilling than I ever could’ve imagined it would be.”

The CaLM Clinic focuses on three crucial elements cancer patients seek: a sense of calm, a feeling of capability, and being comfortable.

“Doctors are experts at medicine, but they’re not experts at being sick people. So here, you can actually talk to sick people about what it’s like, and how they can make your lives better.”

Travis Marcum attended one of the advisory board meetings to see how ACG could assist the CaLM Clinic programming. When he talked about the Lullaby Project, Christina was instantly hooked.

“Hearing about it gave me chills. I immediately piped up and said, ‘I want to write a song about my cancer.’”

Travis asked her to help pilot the program, and together they worked on a piece of music that would be meaningful to Christina.

Miles to Go

“I knew I wanted the song to sound like Sufjan Stevens. Also, I had found out only a month before we started this process that that there’s no cure for this cancer, so I already knew what I wanted to say.”

“I really wanted to tell people I know I’m in this weird space, and I’m certainly going to feel hopeful because medicine is changing. But hear this news and don’t be in denial … also, I’m ok.”

The phrase Miles to go comes up frequently in Christina’s song. It served as a mantra during her marathon-running days, reminding her that I’m present in this moment – where there are still miles to go. During the pregnancy with her daughter and subsequent maternity leave, Christina spent 40 hours crafting a uniquely-stitched quilt that says Miles to go. The lyrics incorporate quilting imagery: “I can darn me where I’m worn/Mend me where I’m torn.”

She receives treatment at a cancer clinic in Houston, and the drive to and from the center also plays a large part in the lyrics.

“The song really captured my feelings about going through the long, challenging process of literally driving miles and miles – miles to go – to do these scans to find out what’s going to happen next.”

“I can bear the weight/I can bear the wait,” begins the chorus.

She finds it comforting to take the same route each time, and one of key landmarks is the Starlite Drive-In Movie Theatre.

“I think it’s beautiful. It’s a little bit dilapidated, but it’s still there, still standing; it resonates with a lot of people.”

Her mantra of Miles to go has been encouraging as she’s traversed the treatment process.

“I like to do things that are a little scary and challenging just to see what happens. Running marathons felt like that to me. If there’s something I want, I will learn or do whatever it is just to get that thing. Lots of treatment sucks, but it’s so easy to keep my eyes on the prize: I do this, and I get to spend longer with my husband and daughter. That’s what matters to me.”

Christina’s seven-year-old daughter plays piano, and Christina really wanted her to play in the song. Travis wrote out a part for her to practice at weekly lessons, and professional guitarist and songwriter Claire Puckett came over to their house to record it. Christina’s daughter aspires to be a professional musician, so she peppered Claire with questions about a musician’s life, and could barely contain her excitement at the answers.

Inner Strength

Christina appreciates the assistance of Travis, who knew how to get at the heart of what she was saying, and Claire, whose production and orchestration skills helped create a beautiful song.

“I listen to it on days when I need a little boost of strength. It’s a good reminder to myself that I’ve got this. I’m gonna get through this next step, and it sucks, but I can do it. I know I said all of those things and believed and meant them at the time, so this is all in me somewhere.

Her advice for people considering the music wellness process of song-writing is to “Do it. You will feel safe, you will not be alone, they will take care of you and guide you, and at the end, you’re going to have a physical thing to represent the feelings inside you. It’s going to be really good for you to have the song; there will be days when you’ll be so glad you do … even if you don’t share it with anyone, even if it’s just for you.”

Christina was recently filmed in a video about the CaLM Clinic that will screen at SXSW in a few weeks. The Clinic is pretty unique in its field, and there will be several representatives speaking about their work to other medical professionals. She’s been asked to speak about her experience in a panel, and they’ll play her song with the lyrics up on a screen.