“I swim for brighter days
Despite the absence of sun
Choking on salt water
I’m not giving in
During my sophomore year of college, sitting in a creepy old house, I heard a song called Konstantine . . . nine and a half melancholic minutes of beauty, heartbreak, confusion (spelled with a K) and devotion that goes along with young love. The lyrics. The voice. The piano. I was enamored. The band was Something Corporate, whose lyrics I’d later sing at the top of my lungs in basement house parties in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, red solo cup in hand, and whose story would come to mean more to me than I ever imagined.
After graduation, living in Philadelphia and working as an oncology nurse, I followed Something Corporate (just as I followed many similar bands), bought their music, and went to shows when they came through town. The first concert I ever saw with my husband (who was my boyfriend of just a few months) in June 2004, featured Something Corporate, and to this day, is one of the most memorable live music events I’ve ever seen. Looking down from the balcony of the Electric Factory and watching the stage as the lead singer, Andrew McMahon, banged on the keys of a giant piano, with thousands of emo kids singing along was a pretty unforgettable scene. A year later, at our wedding, She Paints Me Blue played as Dave and I fed each other fancy cake . . . a memory as clear as day, attached to one of my favorite songs.
A few months later, I was pregnant, 24 years old, and working as a nurse on a bone marrow transplant oncology unit. As we cared for our usual population, a distinct group of five very young leukemia patients were admitted to our unit, from teenagers to twenty-somethings . . . the same time I learned that Andrew McMahon had been diagnosed with leukemia. All of these amazing, vibrant, young people . . . my peers . . . how could this happen to them?
The summer of 2005 felt like one endless prayer for the people I was caring for as a nurse. Please let them be okay. As I felt new life moving inside of my body, I saw moms caring for their kids who were not quite adults, eyes bloodshot from tears and lack of sleep, and hands white knuckled from prayers and bracing themselves for what ultimately would be a goodbye. One by one, they lost their fight. The battle was just too much for their bodies.
Months later, one family had mailed a photo to me after their 19 year old daughter passed away of leukemia. Pictured were the two of us, side by side, laughing, lifting our shirts to compare our bellies. Mine, growing with life, hers filling with fluid from a disease that was slowly killing her. At the time I saw that photo for the first time, I was holding a baby in my arms. And she was gone. My feelings caught me so completely off guard. It made me feel sad, so incredibly angry, and guilty for the life I continued living. My mom was with me, I gave the photo to her and asked her to get rid of it. I couldn’t look at it. To this day, I regret not having that photo, because I wish I had just one piece of her to hold in my hand. Cancer is a thief, and she was robbed of a future that she deserved.
Fortunately, Andrew’s story did not end with leukemia. As he was writing, traveling, performing, and promoting his new band post Something Corporate, Jack’s Mannequin, he began to feel sick, which eventually led to a diagnosis of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). He received an aggressive course of chemotherapy, preparing him for a stem cell transplant from his sister, whose bone marrow was a match. Post transplant, his health improved, Andrew married his wife, Kelly, and went on to write, record, and tour with Jack’s Mannequin, and most recently, as Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. He’s performed around the world, been nominated for an Emmy for outstanding original music and lyrics for his work on the TV show Smash, and this past summer, he teamed up with Lindsay Stirling on the song Something Wild, from Disney’s Pete’s Dragon.
In the midst of these accomplishments, Andrew founded the Dear Jack Foundation (DJF), which supports, advocates, and brings awareness to adolescents and young adults (AYA) struggling through cancer and adjusting to life after survival. Since its inception in 2007, the DJF has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in the effort to improve the lives and outcomes of young patients. AYA cancer patients are considered a forgotten demographic, as those on the younger side tend to be physically grouped with pediatric patients, and those ages 20+ are often treated alongside patients who are decades older, leaving them more isolated and less supported. Shockingly, AYA have seen the least improvement in rates of cancer survival over the past 30 years of research. Let that sink in for a minute. It’s a sobering statistic.
I had the honor of meeting Andrew at a fundraiser for the Dear Jack Foundation, and though I was a little star struck, I was awestruck by his humility, his genuine passion for his foundation, and his compassion for AYA cancer patients. I feel thankful for the opportunity for my life to cross paths with his, and to share with him how deeply inspiring his life, his music, and his passion has been to me.
Here are 6 reasons to love Andrew McMahon, to support the DJF, and Get on the List:
one: there are no coincidences
We cross each other’s paths with purpose. When Andrew was first starting his band Jack’s Mannequin, he wrote a song called Dear Jack, which was written as a letter to the brother of a childhood friend who had survived childhood leukemia. This was before there was any indication that Andrew himself would be diagnosed with the disease. We are all connected, with meaning and purpose. There is a documentary that follows Andrew and his family through his treatment, also called Dear Jack (narrated by Tommy Lee), and I only recently watched it with my son, Carter. He looked at me confused at why I was crying while watching, but I felt overwhelmed by emotion at how real and accurately the film portrays the experience of treatment for leukemia, and the memories I have of caring for those five amazing people. (Please watch Dear Jack, it will change the way you look at cancer and cancer treatment.)
A few weeks ago, Davene wrote that not everything happens for a reason. Is there ever a reason that a young adult hears the words you have cancer? Never. We live in an imperfect world where terrible things happen. There aren’t reasons. But our connection to one another can often strengthen the way through life’s toughest battles. We are all connected, thread by thread in an invisible web, in ways we can’t always understand and sometimes in a future we don’t see coming. Our stories have meaning and power, no matter how messy and painful they might be . . . because the beauty of the human spirit is often forged in fire. One person’s survival can be someone else’s hope.
two: surviving cancer does not mean happily ever after
Survival sometimes can be a really weird, scary place to be, especially for AYA, some of whom are still growing up or are returning home to young families. Cancer survivors are expected to just slip right back into a life that they were living, as if life has just been on pause. But everything changes. For some, food tastes different. Emotions are different. Life is appreciated in different ways, but the experience is physically, emotionally, and mentally painful. Adjustment disorder. Insomnia. Chronic pain. Medication side effects. Graft versus host disease. The list goes on and on. Life after cancer is the ultimate goal, but survivorship can be brutally painful at times. In a video posted on the DJF website, Andrew talks about his own recklessness after survival, and how therapy helped him truly cope post treatment. Part of the mission of the DJF is to assist patients post treatment to live a life with healthy coping, balance, and peace, through a Yoga and Meditative program called Breathe Now. For patients, surviving cancer is impossible to put behind them, because it’s interwoven in every aspect of their lives. Survival is simply another chapter, with it’s own set of obstacles and challenges.
three: your greatest success may be born out of something you never imagined
In his documentary Dear Jack, Andrew expressed frustration at the fact that his oncologist delayed treatment by a few days so that he could take measures to bank his sperm and protect his ability to one day biologically have a child (since intensive chemo leads to infertility). At 22 and eager to begin treatment immediately, a future baby might have been the last thing on his mind, and in fact, he goes on to say in the documentary that he is unsure if he even wants a child. Fast forward to 2014, Andrew and his wife welcomed their baby daughter, Cecilia, for whom he wrote his song Cecelia and the Satellite. The words and melody are simple and sweet, as he describes all the the experiences he’s had and the places he’s been, but as he sings in the song, of all the things my hands have held, the best by far is you. Although Andrew has had a steady following of fans throughout his career, Cecelia and the Satellite reached within the top ten on Billboard’s Alternative and Rock lists and received more airplay than any other of his songs . . . the song he wrote about a daughter he never imagined meeting while preparing for the fight of his life.
four: a legacy is defined by what you give more than what you make
Cancer is impossibly cruel, but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. In partnership with the Love Hope Strength Foundation, the DJF has added over 6,000 registrants to the National Bone Marrow Registry, simply by asking fans to Get on the List as Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness performs in cities throughout the country. Out of those registered through DJF, over 60 bone marrow matches have been made, 16 of which went on to the transplant phase. Sixteen. I often think about my patients from that summer in 2005 . . . I wonder who they would be today if leukemia hadn’t stolen their future. The world is completely altered, because they’re no longer in it. Because of Andrew McMahon and the DJF, sixteen people have been given the chance at a future that so many other patients and their families have not.
five: music is so much more important than words set to song
On that night in October when I came face to face with Andrew, I said to him thank you for writing the soundtrack to my life. I went through breakups listening to his songs. I fell in love (this time, for real) listening to Something Corporate. My babies grew up listening to his music, with three little boys dancing around in the kitchen singing along to Jack’s Mannequin. I’ve cried over life’s messiness as his voice and music echoed in the background. Memory has a way of anchoring itself to music, and it’s impossible for me to hear certain songs and not be filled with nostalgia and emotion.
In a culture where we are so acutely divided, music brings us together. We listen to music when we’re happy, sad, or day dreaming…we make playlists for work outs and road trips, and anyone who has planned a wedding knows how much effort goes into the music. Music is transcendent, a part of the human experience…it’s an expression of who we are and is a reminder of where we’ve been.
six: standing up and fighting for a cause will always require sacrifice
Every year, 72,000 adolescents and young adults are diagnosed with cancer. In 2001, I was one of them. With early detection and surgery, I was cured. I was 19 years old and in my first year of nursing school and my experience ultimately led to my pursuit of and passion for oncology nursing. Unfortunately, I cannot be a bone marrow donor because of my past health history. But there are millions of people who can. If you have blood in your veins and marrow in your bones, you might be the answer to someones deepest hopes and prayers, right now . . . or perhaps you’ll be the answer to prayers that are yet to be whispered. If you have money in your pocket and generosity in your heart, contribute to the Dear Jack Foundation. If you have time on your hands and a heart for service, volunteer.
My greatest admiration for Andrew McMahon lies not in what he has created musically, but what he has done with the gifts and experiences he’s been given, as he’s used his stage as an artist to be an advocate, a philanthropist, and to raise awareness for people traveling the same road that he did in 2005. He had the choice to keep moving forward and not looking back. But he didn’t. He took the pain and misery of an ugly disease and a toxic treatment and made it into something good. Decades from now, people will remember Andrew’s music, but because of his advocacy, there will be family trees that continues to grow branches as generations of people will have a future, thanks to one man’s battle and a mission to change the world.
To the patients and families in the middle of the fight: may you hear the prayers of strangers and loved ones alike. May you hear the small voice in your heart that tells you to swim. Don’t give up. Swim for brighter days. The world needs you here.
You gotta swim
Swim in the dark
There’s no shame in drifting
Feel the tide shifting and wait for the spark
Yeah you’ve gotta swim
Don’t let yourself sink
Just find the horizon
I promise you it’s not as far as you think
The currents will drag us away from our love
Just keep your head above
– Jack’s Mannequin
To learn more about Andrew McMahon and the Dear Jack Foundation, please visit www.dearjackfoundation.org. And to be a true cancer hero, Get on the List through the Love Hope Strength foundation at www.lovehopestrength.org.Published in