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Musician’s Cancer Struggle Inspires Hospital Programs

By FRED DODSWORTH Special to the Planet
Friday January 09, 2004

When early music scholar and performer Eileen Hadidian was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994, the longtime East Bay resident used the music she loved most to help herself through difficult times.  

“When I (was scheduled to go) into surgery, I had a very, very cool surgeon,” Hadidian recalled. “I asked him if I could bring music into the operating room. He asked, ‘Do you want to bring a Walkman or do you want me to bring a boombox?’ I said, ‘Bring a boombox and then the whole operating room crew will get the benefit!’  

“I brought in medieval chants. It was the last thing I heard as I was going under and the first thing I heard when I was coming out. And we know from studies that people who are unconscious hear everything that goes on around them.  

“My doctor was so blown away by this (music) that when he came out to talk to my husband he said, ‘Wow, that music was great … and oh, by the way, she’s doing OK.’  

“That was my first encounter with using music in a healing capacity.” 

Two years later, her own cancer in remission, Hadidian provided musical relief for a close friend who was dying from breast cancer. Every Sunday afternoon she would relieve the home hospice workers for two hours and without words, play for her good friend as she lay dying.  

“I watched (my friend) go from a place of agitation and discomfort to a place of calm. Her breathing stabilized. She closed her eyes and went into a very deep rest. After the two hours were over I thought, ‘This is powerful.’ 

“What’s so wonderful about it is that it’s not about the performance. I was just a vessel for the music to come through and it felt so right to be an instrument and not an ego driven musician up on a pedestal. It’s such a different way of playing music.  

“I continued to play for her until she passed away and every time, even after she went into a coma, she would respond the same way,” said Hadidian. 

That experience lead her to create a program that gave the gift of music to other cancer patients. Playing in local hospitals and working with Kaiser’s hospice department, Hadidian continued to perform solo until her own cancer returned in 1997.  

“When I had breast cancer the first time, it was a stage-one cancer,” Hadidian said. “I was in the ninetieth percentile chance of living my life disease-free. When it came back three years later and it had jumped from a stage-one to a stage-four, there was this real questioning of why. What I realized after a number of months of really having descended into the underworld, (was) I had to let go of the illusion of control and trust the universe. I also felt very strongly that having reasons for living, having passions for life were a very big part of the mind-body connection.  

“When the cancer metastasized and I didn’t know whether I was going to live or die, I couldn’t do the hospice work anymore, I needed to reinforce my own life force. So when things turned around and I got better again I began to explore ways that I could bring music to a larger constituency. That’s when I teamed up with Celtic harpist Natalie Cox, who herself is a long-term cancer survivor and was interested in doing this work. We developed a repertoire that we (brought) to Kaiser-Oakland. That was in 2000. In 2002 we became incorporated as a non-profit corporation (Healing Muses).” 

Healing Muses derives a modest income to support its hospital and hospice programs from seasonal concerts at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany, through sales of Healing Muses CDs, and small payments from the hospitals.  

Currently they offer weekly performances at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland and UCSF/Mount Zion Comprehensive Cancer Center in San Francisco, with occasional appearances at Alta Bates, Summit Medical Center in the East Bay and Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. 

The next Healing Muses performances are entitled “Mirth and Good Cheer—Medieval, Renaissance and Celtic Music for Midwinter and the Changing of the Seasons,” features Susan Rode Morris, soprano; Eileen Hadidian, recorder, flutes; Shira Kammen, violin, vielle; Maureen Brennan, Celtic harp; and Julie Jeffrey, viola da gamba. They will take place at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 10 and at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11 at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, 1501 Washington Ave., Albany. Tickets are $15-$18 and all proceeds benefit the hospital music program. Advance reservations are recommended. St. Alban’s is wheelchair accessible. Call 524-5661for reservations or visit