Music helps boost the spirits of cancer survivors

P.J. Pacifico is a singer-songwriter who does all those things a singer-songwriter does: He writes new songs, performs locally, releases CDs and goes on tour.

But P.J. Pacifico is also a cancer survivor.

"When I got diagnosed, a friend who had gone through this before me said he wasn't going to provide me a lot of advice," Pacifico said. "He told me, `Just keep those spirits as high as you possibly can.' That stuck with me."

And as a member of Band Together, an oft-changing group of musicians that performs to raise money for charities, Pacifico is helping other survivors learn how music can help do just that.

Band Together founder Rob Fried came up with idea of organizing musical seminars to the members of the Center for Survivorship, a hub for programs organized by the CT Challenge, a charity based in the Southport section of town that supports a range of programs to help cancer survivors and to aid cancer research.

As musical director of Band Together, Fried came in contact with CT Challenge and the center. They did their usual concert thing to help raise money for CT Challenge, but Fried thought "we want to be involved."

The sessions led by Fried -- there have been four so far -- are designed to help guide cancer survivors through the use of music, learning how it can help elevate their mood, for example. He is joined at each workshop by one of Band Together's musicians, like Pacifico or Christine Ohlman.

"We aren't music therapists," Fried said, but rather facilitators, who help to show participants how they might already be using music in their life. "I really enjoy being around music as much as I can. For me, it makes me feel more peaceful and at ease. Disease is the absence of ease."

For the center, the music workshops are an extension of the mind-body health, exercise, nutrition and community-building support programs that constitute the core of how it helps cancer survivors rebuild and continue forward with their lives after a cancer diagnosis, countering the short- and long-term after effects of the disease.

"The center and all CT Challenge programs are about hope, setting goals and achieving them -- reasserting yourself in the life cancer may have taken from you," said Pamela Dey, marketing and communications director. "They are about inspiration and triumph. They are about community and finding strength in a group collectively aimed at living well. So, while the music workshops, on the surface, have little resemblance to our popular TRX, yoga, spinning or nutrition classes, they are every bit as much about lifting participants to new levels of peace, confidence and energy ... enabling them to heal, reclaim their lives and move forward."

With a relaxed vibe -- low lights, big pillows on the floor -- the session is not tightly orchestrated. Everyone in the small group -- all women on a recent night -- introduces herself, and described their personal connection to music. Most, it turns out, have some musical talent, though that is not a requirement.

Fried punches in a song on his phone, and the infectious R&B rhythm of The Spinners' 1972 hit, "I'll Be Around" fills the room. Toes tap, and some sing along quietly. When the song ends, Fried poses a question: "How does that music make you feel?"

For one survivor, it harkens back to the days when she'd hear that song played on the radio, while another, Margaret, says that the line, "Whenever you call me, I'll be there," is "particularly poignant for cancer patients. You really do find out who your friends are. That tag line really speaks to that." After her diagnosis, she said, "I always knew I had good friends, but I found people who I believed to be just acquaintances turned out to be friends."

Next up on the playlist was Pharrell's monster hit, and hard to resist, "Happy."

"I was feeling this in my cheeks," Fried said. Pacifico agreed. "I started smiling."

And this, is the point of the workshop.

"We're talking about how songs are making us feel, and where we're feeling it," Fried said.

For more information about programs offered by CT Challenge, contact its Center for Survivorship, 250 Pequot Ave.; telephone: 203-292-8722, or website: