“I will get well not out of fear of dying, but out of the joy of living…and self-expression.”
– Belleruth Naparstek, Health Journeys Meditations, “Fight Cancer”

Has music ever made you feel less alone? I hear it. I see it. I feel it…differently now.

Music therapy is new to me. It’s one of the perks of cancer for those of us treated at University Hospitals, which has one of the largest medical music therapy programs in the United States – another Cleveland gem. Sure, I’d heard of it. I have even known music therapists and people who want to become music therapists when they grow up. But I’d never been a recipient. Until now. I. Love. It.

Tori Obermeier came into my hospital room as I lay there post-surgery for ovarian cancer, with a whole new appreciation for the meaning of “gut-wrenching” and awaiting (okay, fearing) another 5-6 months of treatment with chemotherapy. In she walked, sensing how quiet my life force was at that moment. I’m not her first patient, and she knew what to do. I appreciated the gentle way she approached my so recently battered body and helped excavate my soul-in-hiding. She brought her guitar. She played. I think I wrote some of my feelings. It’s hard to remember now exactly what we did that day. There was pain. There were drugs. I wasn’t “home” in any sense of the word. What I remember clearly is that I felt a little better when she left. This was unexpected, as was the fact that I felt understood. Even in that moment. That’s how the dance began.

So, when Tori called to ask if I wanted to continue music therapy with her via Zoom (in the middle of a pandemic), I was more than game. I was curious and hopeful the work would continue to do something I couldn’t do on my own, yet. I wasn’t sure exactly what. Then, we continued. She asked me to reflect on myself past, present, and future. It’s always interesting and sometimes powerful to reflect on identity. Cancer brings a sharp point to that work, and lots of feelings emerge. Grief for what you have lost. Fear about the future. Uncertainty in the present. But alternately, it brings an appreciation for the foundation you have built, strength you didn’t know you had, and hope for things you can still do now and envision in the future. She asked me to pick songs that represented my past, present, and future. Your current fight may not be cancer, but you probably have one. Unfortunately, there is plenty of dis-ease and discomfort to go around these days.

What would be the songs that represent your selves – past, present, and future? It’s a great question, I came to realize, because this kind of work helps you integrate them all which can be difficult. My answers? “I am Woman” (Helen Reddy), “Bitch” (Meredith Brooks, and more recently, Ruby Amanfu), and “Freedom” (George Michael). Don’t judge! It’s the process that matters, not my taste. There is a disintegration of identity that can happen slowly over time and then acutely in life-altering moments. Re-integrating yourself and your feelings can be difficult, but it’s vital to how we live. Music helps us move through that work, getting to places inside that words can’t touch. Do you know what I mean? Doing this work, at a time like this, with a gentle therapist who deftly creates safe space for emotion and inspires creativity is a huge gift. It feeds my life force in ways that move beyond cognitive understanding.

Then……Tori and I took on the big kahuna. We (re)wrote a song together! How intimidating and how fun! I have always wanted to be a singer, thwarted only by a consistent inability to match pitch. Still, hope springs eternal. The song we used was one of my favorites: Sarah Bareilles’s “She Used to be Mine.” The assignment: change the words enough so the song speaks to my story right now, out loud, with music. Yikes! It’s a vulnerable thing to do, and there is also poetry and rhythm to consider. Incredibly, Tori made the work fun and easy (think, MadLibs). It flowed mostly effortlessly and was finished in a couple of Zoom sessions. When she sang it, I cried. There it is. Emotion. It’s an important part of the journey. But wait, there’s more…

Debriefing the song, we discovered more. The whole process helped me describe, grant myself permission, and claim a word people often use in support of cancer patients and survivors: “badass.” I hear it a lot these days, and I can’t say I mind. The picture above gives you a sense of what “badass” means to me, as well as the messy, beautiful creative process (Zoom screenshot of the words that came to mind as Tori played music for me).

What does “badass” mean to you? In which fight do you need to be a “badass” today?

I’d like to think I could have imagined my way into this kind of learning, but the truth is, I couldn’t. I am getting to places on this journey I haven’t visited before. It helps that I like to travel, but the unknown is always scary, especially when physical suffering is part of the deal. But cancer brings the chance to realize and metabolize fear, over and over. To not let it be automatic. To not let it masquerade as anger. To not let it land in my body and rule my unconscious. I find it difficult work but liberating. Being human is inherently traumatic. Transforming rather than transmitting that trauma is tricky, difficult, and scary. When we can muster the transformation of trauma (rather than transmitting it to others), it’s a badass thing to do.

It may sound ironic, but no one can be a badass without empathy. Empathy helps us move through and transform fear because we are not alone. We are held. We are loved, in the midst of it all. I am not alone. None of us is alone, but sometimes it’s hard to see and feel that truth. One of the gifts of cancer is feeling that fellowship so fully and consistently. I have family, friends, angels, and healers of all sorts, including Tori. Being badass is really about being Brave. There’s Sarah Bareilles again! I’m grateful to her and other singer-songwriters for being vulnerable and honest enough to share their feelings and stories in their art. It’s such a brave thing to do. Music helps us not be alone. Music helps us change, in the ways we must in order to heal, individually and collectively. Music helps us be badasses, together.


If she can share hers, I can share mine. (Music here recorded by Tori; lyrics below)

I wonder what your badass song would sound like today?


“She Is Still Mine”
by Jackie Acho (with a LOT of help from Tori Obermeier) via Sarah Bareilles

[Verse 1]

It’s not simple to say
That some days I don’t recognize me,
That these scars and this bare head,
Those drugs and these tears shed
Are taking more than I wanted.

It’s not easy to know
I’m not everything that I used to be, although
It’s true, I was never in cancer’s dark center,
I still remember that girl.

[Chorus 1]

She’s imperfect, but she tries.
She is strong, but she cries.
She’s been hard on herself.
She’s hard-working, too willing to help.

She is complex, but she’s kind.
She is loved most of the time.
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie.
She is in there and used to be mine.

[Verse 2]

And it’s not what I asked for.
Sometimes life just slips in through a back door
And carves out a person and makes you then wonder what’s true,
And now I’ve got cancer,

And it’s not what I asked for,
If I’m honest I know I would give it all back
For a chance to start over and rewrite an ending or two
For the girl that I knew,

[Chorus 2]

Who’ll be badass just enough.
Who’ll get tough when people get rough
So she’ll see and believe that she just cannot help everyone
And then she’ll be done,

And delight in the soul that’s inside her,
Growing stronger each day,
‘Til it finally reminds her
To fight more than a little
To light up the fire in her eyes.
It’s still in there and used to be mine.


She is complex, but she’s kind.
She is loved most of the time.
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie.
She is in there and she is still mine.

Heartfelt thanks to music therapist Tori Obermeier, UH/Seidman Cancer Center, and Dr. Francoise Adan, Director of Integrative Health, University Hospitals of Cleveland. Thanks also to Andrea C. Turner, of Act One Communications, for edits to this post.  

For more on how to cultivate and steward empathy, individually, organizationally, and nationally, check out Jackie’s book: Currency of Empathy – The Secret to Thriving in Business & Life.


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An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder


An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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