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Cheryl Waters has been a DJ at KEXP for over two decades. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, the station was a central part of her healing process. (KEXP Photo / Brittney Bollay)

At the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s Proton Therapy Center in North Seattle, the halls are rarely quiet.

“You’ll hear ’80s music blaring,” said Dr. Ramesh Rengan, or “music that actually speaks of illness — ballads for example.”

Dr. Ramesh Rengan, medical director of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s Proton Therapy Center. (SCCA Photo)

Rengan is the medical director of the center, which gives patients cutting-edge radiation therapy for cancer. He said that every room there is set up for patients can play their own music during treatments.

“Music is very much a part of what we do,” Rengan said. “It’s a way that [patients] can make the treatment their own.”

That’s why the Proton Therapy Center is teaming up with nonprofit Seattle-based radio station KEXP for Music Heals, a day-long event that celebrates the power of music to help heal both the physical and mental pain left by a cancer diagnosis.

The event kicks off Thursday morning at 6 a.m. For 12 hours, KEXP DJs will play music and share stories from listeners and staff about how music and cancer have touched their lives. The broadcast can be streamed at kexp.org or heard at 90.3 FM in the Seattle area.

At 6 p.m., the station will host a free community dance party in its gathering space at Seattle Center, with music curated by longtime KEXP DJ and cancer survivor Cheryl Waters and DJ Atticus, whose mom is also a cancer survivor.

DJ John Richards, the mastermind behind the event, said it was sparked in part by hearing from listeners and community members during KEXP events about music and loss, including the annual Mom Show that marks his own mother’s passing.

“A lot of the stories that are sent to me and a lot of the things we hear about during those shows revolve around cancer,” Richards said. He has a personal tie to the topic as well: both of his parents passed away from cancer, and a close friend was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

Richards also said the station often hears from listeners who are going through cancer treatment and use music as a support tool.

Rengan said our perception of music as a healing tool isn’t just a psychological trick or a placebo effect.

“From a scientific standpoint, there’s a lot of data out there about how, when one is listening to music, they actually activate different parts of their brain, and it’s actually very positive and soothing. It can have a big impact on how you perceive an experience to be,” he said.

“It’s particularly important for cancer patients,” Rengan added. “For many, cancer is a very anxiety provoking diagnosis and it generates, naturally, a lot of fear in a patient.”

Every patient reacts to cancer treatment differently, and music plays a different role in everyone’s recovery, he said. Music can help patients calm down and handle their anxiety, or come to grips with their fear and uncertainty. It can also channel those emotions into more positive feelings.

KEXP DJ John Richards got the idea for the event after hearing listeners’ stories about how music has helped them through cancer treatments and the loss of loved ones who had the disease. His parents both passed away from cancer, and a close friend is currently going through treatment. (KEXP Photo / Greg Stonebraker)

Waters said her experience was unique because she was able to continue doing her daily show on KEXP during treatment.

“Whereas some people would be looking for certain kinds of music — whether it would be upbeat dance music or quiet peaceful music or whatever — my way of using music was to come in and do my music mix,” she said. She also spent many hours listening to the station while her fellow DJs were on air.

“I wasn’t necessarily choosing albums with a certain feel — I was staying connected to the music community,” Waters said.

Given the wide variety of experiences, how did the station even approach programming 12 hours of radio content around cancer?

“It’s super organic,” Richards explained. “You get on air and you flat-out say, ‘I want to hear your stories. Is there music that helped you, is there playlists? Did you hear something on the show?'”

DJs Cheryl Waters, left, and John Richards co-hosting a show during one of the KEXP’s fundraising drives in 2011. (KEXP Photo / Dean Wenick)

DJs have been asking listeners for stories and requests for the past few weeks. Richards said one request has stood out: many cancer survivors have asked him to play “Waiting Room” by hardcore band Fugazi.

“Many people’s experience with cancer is just waiting,” Richards said, such as waiting for test results, waiting for treatments to work (or not), and waiting for appointments.

The DJs have also been putting together music about cancer by artists who have struggled with cancer, including the late David Bowie and soul singer Sharon Jones. Rengan, Waters and other special guests will also speak on air about their experiences with cancer and the power of music to heal.

But Richards was quick to emphasize that the in-person celebration Thursday evening is an incredibly important part of the day. He said that idea came from asking people in the community what they thought of the event and what they wanted to happen during it.

“Everyone kind of wanted a dance party, or a family get together, just a way to be around people,” Richards said. “Because as many people have cancer, it feels like a very lonesome fight. So having the community of other people — not in a hospital setting, not in a treatment center, but in a radio station, in a really warm gathering space — to just be around each other and know you’re not alone? That’s a really important part of this day of programming.”

During the day of programming, listeners can hear Richards on air during his normal “Morning Show,” from 6 to 10 a.m. He will also co-host the “Midday Show” with Waters from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and KEXP “Afternoon Show” DJ Kevin Cole will take over programming from 2 to 6 p.m. The evening dance party is family friendly, and runs from 6 to 8 p.m.

Editor’s Note: Clare McGrane is a KEXP volunteer. 

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