Cancer and Ukes

Aloha! I know I usually review ukuleles, but I’m here today with a more personal story to share. Don’t worry: Ukulele is involved.

My day job isn’t ripping on the ukulele for fun and profit – it’s actually serving in the US Air Force (whose views and policies I am not representing right now. No, this is all me). I was deployed to the desert and became close with my roommate. He played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and listened to me try to nail this ridiculous country lick on guitar for hours. He would laugh when I messed up and I messed up a lot since it was my first introduction to hybrid picking.

He talked about how he had a guitar and at one point tried to learn, but ultimately gave up. He would like to get back into it, though.

Years later he was medically unable to serve in the Air Force anymore. He had cancer and needed treatment. I reached out to him and he said he was going to college when he wasn’t in the hospital and still wanted to learn to play guitar. I hooked him up with a friend who was trying to sell a guitar and he started trying to learn.

But his cancer got worse and it required him to stay in the hospital more. He just recently had a surgery that addressed different parts of most of his body and they told him he would have to start chemo. I’ve known people that went through chemo and they said it was the worst experience of their lives. How could it not be? You are literally poisoning yourself to the point where cancer should (hopefully) not be able to survive in your now-inhospitable body. People die doing this. It is nothing less than a stare-down between the patient and cancer to see who blinks first. It requires a fighting spirit and an unending supply of resolve.

After the news came out about his surgery and requiring chemo, I got back in touch with him and I told him about these charities out there that give kids in his situation ukuleles. Ukuleles have less string tension and nylon strings (unless you want to be fancy). They have short necks so you don’t have to move your fretting arm nearly as much as you would on a guitar. They’re among the most portable instruments on earth.

And they have a bright, happy tone.

It’s this bright, happy tone on an easy-to-grasp instrument that makes kids love the uke and the benefits of less string tension and softer strings, less movement required, and more portability make them perfect for people in the hospital with limited movement.

I explained that if you imagined a guitar with a capo on the 5th fret, the top four strings would be an ukulele if you used a low-g string. So all of your chord shapes that deal with just those strings would stay the same, they would just have different names and the songs you play would be in different keys.

Then I asked if he wanted one of mine.

I planned on giving him my Kala KA-CG. It’s my favorite ukulele to loan out because the concert size is big enough for an adult to be comfortable on, but small enough to manage easily and still retain that cool ukulele bark. To date, I’ve loaned it to three people and all of them have loved it so much that they bought ukuleles of their own (though oddly none chose the same ukulele). I drove out to the Ukulele Site, bought a set of low G strings to make it an easier transition for my guitar-playing friend, stretched them out for about a week, and then drove to UPS.

Where I was told it would be about a hundred bucks to send it.

A hundred bucks?! Just for shipping? No, thanks. I called up The Ukulele Site and ordered a Kala KA-SSLNG for him instead. It’s $149.99 and I ordered a case as well which increased the price, but I figured that in the long run it’s a better deal for him because he would be getting a brand new uke instead of my used one and it would be set-up by the pros instead of mine (which was bought from somewhere else and definitely NOT set-up). I did take some heat at home for this sudden change of heart and greater expense, but it was pretty easy to recover from and the heat came more from the suddenness than the expense itself. Communication is key at home, folks.

Since the uke arrived, he’s been using Yousician and learning basic chords and songs. He says the neck is way more comfortable on his hand (which I imagine is a constant needle-depository by now) and he’s having a good time. He can play it on the couch. He can bring it to the hospital. It’s not a burden or a pain – both literally and figuratively – like a guitar would be, and he’s enjoying it.

I didn’t write this as a testimonial to The Ukulele Site’s selection, prices, or set-up shop (though they’re all great), and I certainly didn’t write it as a “look at me and what I did,” post. I don’t really know where something like this would fit in, honestly. I just know that the ukulele was a bridge – a physical token – from me to my friend. It was the best possible way for me to let him know that I care about him and that I want him to get better. It’s like when someone says “God bless you.” You might be a member of any other or no religion, but that doesn’t change the fact that the person who said it wished you the best that they could. I can’t cure cancer and I can’t make chemo easier for him. I’m nobody special. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to help and this was the best way for me to share that with him. It is a reminder that there’s at least one person out there who cares about him that he can talk to and it doesn’t have to be about his cancer or treatments. This is an excuse to talk about something else if he wants, because I’m positive that people constantly asking about it can get irritating.

Regardless, if it helps in any possible way then that’s all that matters.

I’ve heard stories that George Harrison would always bring two ukuleles on plane trips so someone else could play with him or that he would buy a bunch of ukes and then give them away as gifts. He loved them. Who wouldn’t? They have a unique ability to make people happy and maybe give them just a bit more light in their lives and people like my friend need all the help they can get.

Maybe there’s a person in your life who could benefit from an ukulele. They don’t have to be dying in a hospital, but maybe they could use the happy tone and knowing you’re there. Maybe you can use it to connect more. Or maybe you want to find one of those ukulele charities and donate a uke you don’t play anymore. Who knows? I just know that most of us aren’t going to cure cancer, but that doesn’t mean we’re unable to show that we care. If that means more ukes and deeper connections through music, I don’t see anything wrong with trying.

Comments 8

  1. God bless you, and your friend.

    My family just lost a cousin to cancer. It is a terrible thing to go through. I pray he does well.

    I’m a guitar teacher, and just bought my first ukulele – a Kala KA-SCG. Not ready to lend it out – you are a good friend.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about your cousin, David.

      I definitely waited until I got my second ukulele before i started loaning out my first! I like my friends a lot, but I go a little nuts if I don’t have a fretted instrument to play at the end of the day. 😉

  2. This post really caught my attention. In December 2016 I was diagnosed with stage 3c colon cancer. I had surgery within a week to get the tumor cut out. In February I was strong enough to start chemo therapy to attack anything they may have left behind.

    I had been playing the ukulele for a little over a year when I was diagnosed. I knew a few songs and I would play those on my soprano as I lay in bed once I got home after surgery. My playing sucked but I didn’t care.

    When my chemo treatments started in February it became difficult to play at times. Among all the chemo side effects, one of the most irritating was the cold and heat sensitivity. That was due to the chemo attacking my nervous system. My hands and feet tingled constantly. (They still do after three weeks off the stuff but it’s getting better.) I couldn’t touch stuff in the refrigerator. It would feel like needles, kind of like when your arm or leg “falls asleep” except the needles felt huge and painful.

    It made fretting even a soprano ukulele difficult at times. Along with the tingling nerves the chemo went to work on my skin. My fingertips would crack and peel after each treatment. It wasn’t constant but it sucked when it happened.

    The most frustrating part was/is the chemo brain. Chemo made it hard for me to concentrate. It was almost impossible for me to look at sheet music or tabs and comprehend what I was seeing. The lethargy made it hard to do just about anything.

    I still played ukulele almost every day. Mindless strumming along with some of the fingerstyle I know well enough for the muscle memory to take over. I played the few songs I know over and over (my poor wife!) Not really practicing, just noodling mostly.

    Yesterday marked three weeks chemo free for me. I’ve been scanned and declared cancer free. My chemo brain is starting to clear up. After some follow up surgery in a couple of weeks I’ll go back to work. I’m starting to practice ukulele a bit more. And I’m working on a new song or two. I’m happy I have had the ukulele through all of this.

    1. Post

      Thanks for sharing Joe, and I’m glad you’re getting yourself back, and getting through this like a champ. We have a friend here Len who made it through chemo last year and he’s doing really well now. Really got into juicing and biking. Anyway, keep on brother, sounds like the worst is behind you.

  3. I love this. I’ve only been playing since the beginning of this year and already I’ve e courage’s so many people to buy ukuleles. It brings me so much joy and I want others to have the same. I hope to get one for my daughter who’s almost 5 so we can play together. What a great idea for someone who’s suffering so much. I love the idea that you two have something other than illness to focus on together. I pray he recovers soon!

  4. Wow and Amen! What a gift and what an example of Christ’s compassion for others.
    I have a really bad case of UAS; so far I’ve only bought 3. I gave the first one to my foster son; he had wandered into my room to investigate the sounds of me trying to master Bflat and D. Now WE play!❤

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. As someone who’s father is fighting cancer it really hits home. He’s currently in remission but we never know what tomorrow holds. My father and I bond over cars. Always have and always will. Hoping I get the time with him to do a restore project at some point. Glad you could find your bridge as well. Cheers my friend.

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