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CHEMO SONG

Exactly 10 years ago today, I was sitting in the hospital undergoing an experimental chemotherapy for the second time in my life. I had just spent my 40th day and 40th night in that miserable hospital room. During those first 40 days, I wrote numerous songs. One song that resulted from that difficult season ended up on my debut album in the form of a song of encouragement. I titled it, “Chemo Song,” not wanting to make it seem deeper than it was. After all, it was a song I wrote while in chemo. I wanted the depth of the song to come from the lyrics and music of that season, rather than the title.

I thought it would be a good idea to make “Chemo Song” the next song I tackled, especially given the interesting timing in so many ways. Not only was it the anniversary, but also because for the past couple weeks, I’ve been quite emotional given a health scare situation. I had a hematoma on my arm and felt a sudden looming sense of relapse. I’ll be completely forthcoming… I have not had a hospital check-up in almost 2 years. During the first week in Singapore, by God’s grace, a physician—a cardiologist— hosted an Alpha event and invited me as a speaker. Over the past week he has graciously covered an entire heart check-up and numerous blood tests. Through seeing such provision, I am strengthened in my conviction of this journey and grateful to be pressing forward! Ten years ago, I got to celebrate the opportunity to become something more. Ten years later (today), I am again given the chance to be something more, and I intend to live each and every day celebrating this opportunity! 

It has been a privilege to share many interesting and vulnerable stories behind "Chemo Song" especially in more intimate settings during touring. I’d like to share a few of these moments with you. In regards to songwriting, this particular one was not the most eloquent during that difficult season, but I feel that it best captured the precarious process of my lived experience. 

The hardest part of my chemotherapy experience was that it was likened to receiving a jail sentence without a set limit. For that particular experimental chemotherapy, it can be likened to rebooting a computer, except that in many cases, the computer never actually reboots. In this “rebooting” phase, you’re simply waiting around for two options— your bone marrow begins to make regular blood cells again (i.e. the reboot) or you die. 

During my first stint in chemotherapy, I reached crazy points while waiting. A month and a half in, I seriously considered (and tried) to throw a swivel chair in my hospital room through the window of my room on the 8th floor of the CMSC (Children’s Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital). I remember that moment… one of many moments when I reached a breaking point. My mother had to slap some sense into me and we cried together on the floor. There are more "dehumanizing experiences" that have led to breaking points that I've been able to share about.  I feel that these breaking points are so critical for personal growth. I suppose the trick is in not giving up and sticking around to let the sun rise another day. 

In writing “Chemo Song,” I really just wanted to convey what I felt emotionally, but it was quite hard because everything was a bit hazy. Long nights alone, after my mother went home for the night, were especially hazy. I could stop acting strong for my mother, and I would examine the world through swollen eyes and a soundtrack of life-support machines playing in the background. I would do my best, utilizing all of my senses, to take in everything around me and despite suffering, live intentionally. This act of “taking in the moment” is something I have adopted as a guiding principle of life. 

Since I took the leap of faith on this journey two years ago, I’ve tried to intentionally live each and every day using all five senses I have been blessed with. For example, when I drink my morning cup of coffee, I first take in the smell and allow the aroma to deeply fill my lungs. Next,  I aurally take in individual sounds around me— the surrounding conversations to the low whirring of the espresso bean grinder. Then, I carefully watch the steam rise from the mug. Also, I then take the time to gently taste the coffee and allow it to sit inside my mouth. It would remind me of the word “mouthfeel.” I love it when sommeliers use this word to describe wine. It requires one to allow for the wine to sit in the mouth longer than normal, taking in flavors that we so often let slip by. By using all of my senses, what I found was that life became fuller. I now remember things without needing to take photos of coffee, food, etc.

The lyrics of the verses in “Chemo Song” were an attempt to capture fleeting, hazy thoughts, hoping to draw from the listener’s own personal experiences. The coolness of menthol. The scent of bleach. The crispness of white sheets. The constant rhythm of the sound of machines. Sweating and shivering. I want the listener to relate and remember sweating from a flu or from a morning run or shivering from the brisk coldness of winter or the goosebumps that crawl over one’s body when hearing something spooky. 

In relation to the sound of the song, one of my most favorite aspects is the contrast in the crescendos and decrescendos, buttressed by drums and guitars. I want to pull the listener onto a roller coaster ride backed by a dreamscape of ambient sounds. I want them to get pulled into the lull of certain moments, and then be abruptly woken up by other moments. This is how I remember my experience of undergoing chemotherapy. I wanted this song to have an element involving moving in and out of consciousness. Thankfully, many listeners have expressed that this sort of experience happens for them when they allow themselves to get lost in the song.  It’s amazing how much of my experience can be translated through music.

How a listener responds to a song is something I cannot completely control as an artist. I have found that the trick is to not worry about this. I know that many write with the intention of having the listener take away something specific. Others write words to fit into lines and align them with respective notes. I simply take the approach of writing whatever I feel is presently flowing out of me. The beautiful thing is that the listener can take away things from my writing that do connect to their own experience, much like how a puzzle piece finds its way into a place of a puzzle. 

It’s quite a privilege to have the opportunity to connect with others in such a way, even strangers. Over the past 365 days, I have received so many messages and emails speaking about how this song has encouraged them. Some have even taken the same step of vulnerability. They share about how the song was used in their experiences struggling with illness, loss, and even suicide. I’ll admit that many of these messages have moved me to tears because ironically, in my own vulnerability, I’m being used to impact the world.

{You can listen to the song below and can feel free to support a good cause via a purchase of the song HERE with the bonus of a portion of the proceeds going directly to the Johns Hopkins Children's Center


This cosmic chaos Underneath
Clouds hang down beneath
my heavens.

My tears fall
Like menthol
Tracing coolly down my face.

Alone, I’m left in disrepair
Take my soul I’ll lay it bare
Before you.

But I come alive / as I let go
Our scars collide / as only you could show.

Through this violent peace, I’ll soar / With you / Have broken my heart / to save me

A scent of bleach that rises up from
Crisp white linens meant to hug
My bones.

A somber silence cuts so deep
Beside machines that never sleep
To dream.

Can’t decide to sweat or shiver
My body’s weak from what’s delivered
Inside.