Life Through Headphones

*The following post is hosted at MD Anderson’s blog, Cancerwise.org. Here is the long, unedited version. Thank you for your support!*

Two weeks ago, I sat in a coffee shop and stared at a blinking cursor on a blank screen. The cafe was filled with noisy conversation, a non-ambient soundtrack, and customers who yelled orders over obnoxious blenders. I kept wishing things would be different, fantasizing about conversation levels dying down, and hoping that people would finally get the memo that coffee is not meant to be mixed with ice. I sat defeated when I realized that none of those things would ever come true.

After a few minutes, I suddenly remembered that my backpack was at the foot of the table. As quickly as I could, I reached for my headphones and put them over my ears. Everything that I had been hoping for was finally coming true. Ambient music flooded my senses and the world around me had become mute. The jackhammer that was apparently used to crush ice was extinguished and I no longer felt as if I was in a restless place with infinite drink combinations. I had finally found my comfort zone.

For a few moments, I sat and observed life through the ambiance of my own music. Although my environment had changed, the world around me didn’t. People still appeared rushed, the blenders still mixed drinks, and every table remained occupied. I wondered how the atmosphere in the coffee shop would have been different if everyone had on my headphones. Would things have slowed down? Would people have felt less rushed? Might the conversation levels have become a little more serene?

This is what it is like to have cancer. The moment you hang up the phone or walk out of the doctor’s office after receiving your diagnosis, it’s as if God reaches down and gives you a pair of headphones that radically changes the environment you had always experienced differently. Cancer is the ambiance that initiates a new perception, one that nobody else will understand. The world should slow down, the lines should shorten, and the mood should change, but they don’t. Instead, the conversation remains loud, the environment is hectic, and the world carries on, never noticing your small table in the corner of a busy coffee shop.

My fiancé, Katie, sat across the table from me with her own Mac laptop and grande hot chocolate (we were trying to keep things as clichéd as possible). Because she is not easily distracted, I was the only one wearing headphones. This seemed to work well for me, but not so well for our communication. Throughout our time at the cafe, I would occasionally hear a mumble or noise that sounded distinct enough to resemble direct conversation. Like any male, the first thing I did when I felt a unique movement or sound was to ignore it and hope that it went away. In both cases, the distinct noise indicated that Katie was trying to get my attention. When I’d finally look up, I’d notice that she was staring right at me. Her mouth produced one of the most beautiful, inaudible voices that I’ve ever heard and her amazingly toned arms looked as if she was modeling for Rosetta Stone’s new sign language cd. It turned out, however, that the sign language lesson was for me. She was signing for me to take my headphones off. I’ve never been great with foreign languages.

As a cancer patient, you don’t have the ability to take off your headphones. In most cases, you don’t even have the option to choose the music that you’re listening to. The music is your diagnosis and your diagnosis chooses you. You exist in a world that is otherwise moving freely, conversing joyfully, and choosing unbelievable combinations from the menu of life. As the music resonates with only you, nobody feels the melody, understands the rhythm, or knows the words to sing along. In a very small way, you are your own audience.

As much as I would have liked to have described to Katie the music that prevented me from giving her my attention, she would have never fully understood. I could have tried to sing it to her, but I didn’t have the talent, band, or musical instruments to accurately reflect my different environment. I could have said, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t hear you, but I’m listening to this great band called Miscommunication. I don’t even know how to describe them,” however, there’s no way that her imagination could have accurately filled the gaps of my experiences. I simply had to accept the fact that I was processing an entirely different atmosphere just a couple of feet away. Acceptance became the only thing that I could control.

Six years after my diagnosis of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, I’m continuing to learn how to communicate my song. I still have the headphones on, but I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to reflect the beat in my own way, using my own lyrics. As the world around me listens to an alternate soundtrack, I’ve discovered that there is a unique ambiance that permeates the headphones of those living with cancer. Thankfulness, appreciation, hope, character, and perseverance creates an environment that might have never been established otherwise. It turns an empty screen, with a blinking cursor, into a lifelong novel of inspiration.

6 Replies to “Life Through Headphones”

  1. It is always refreshing to read the thoughts of others who get the privilege of living in the same dimension as yourself!

  2. Justin- such an amazing post! I enjoy reading your installments and the way you view this world! Nice work, keep it coming!!

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