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Gynecological cancers are center stage for oncologist band

John Soper plays the mandolin.
John Soper plays the mandolin.

Cancer is a wake-up call.

It prompts action, especially from oncologists who see its effects every day.

Six oncologists from around the country came together to create a rock band with the goal of increasing awareness of gynecological cancers, and they will be perpetuating that message Friday night with a documentary about the band at the Varsity Theatre and Saturday as the headliner for UNC Rex Cancer Care’s Rock for Hope Music Festival.

No Evidence of Disease, or N.E.D., formed in 2008 after they played at a medical conference as what was supposed to be a one-time thing. The covers they performed were so well-received that they decided to make the band real, and began writing and composing their own music.

Dr. Nimesh Nagarsheth, who plays the drums, came up with the name, which is a term they use to declare that a cancer patient is either in remission or isn’t showing any more signs or symptoms.

“‘No evidence of disease’ is something that we all use when we see patients on a daily basis,” Nagarsheth said. “It’s a really positive message.”

That positive message is also key in N.E.D.’s songwriting. The members said they draw inspiration not only from their careers, but also from life experiences in general. Their songs aren’t about cancer, but about life, pain, loss, joy — about where they come from.

Bass guitarist Dr. William “Rusty” Robinson said the band does occasionally steal lyrics from memorable experiences with patients.

One patient with ovarian cancer would come in for chemotherapy on the regular schedule — once every three weeks — and became close with some of the other patients. The group would get chemo treatments together while playing cards and singing songs. But one day when they got too rowdy, other patients complained about them and asked the boisterous ringleader to be removed. Her words were the inspiration for “Don’t Start the Party.”

“As she was leaving that day, she walked to the door — it was like they were escorting her out as if she was getting kicked out of a sporting event or something, and she stopped at the door, wouldn’t go any further and turned around and said, ‘OK, don’t start the party next time until I get here,’” Robinson said.

Though many of the band’s lyrics have this celebratory aspect, they also have some hard-hitting songs that describe tougher aspects of their jobs, such as “Third-Party Perspective,” written by Nagarsheth.

“It’s just this concept that I experienced when you talk to patients day in and day out and diagnose them with cancer,” he said. “You don’t feel like you’re across from the patient — you’re not engaged with the patient because it’s too much to burden, so you view yourself as a third person in the room. It’s a concept that we need to know exists, but also that we need to get past.”

It’s in this way that the band blends both their careers as oncologists and as musicians. Dr. John Boggess, lead vocalist and a guitarist for the band and an oncologist from UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, said playing music is a way to create much-needed awareness of gynecological cancers in a positive way.

“In our culture in particular we don’t talk about uteruses and ovaries and vaginas very freely, and in general, when you look back in history with breast cancer awareness that was the same issue,” Boggess said. “Our patients say, ‘Oh, my friend said I know what you’re going through, I had breast cancer,’ and our patients will say, ‘Well I don’t have breast cancer, I have uterine cancer, or ovarian cancer, and I’m not a part of your group — I’m my own group.’”

Though research is a huge part of addressing any health issue, Boggess said awareness has to come first, especially in the case of gynecological cancers. Through this rock festival, the band can inform people without dwelling on the unavoidable harsh facts — that this disease is just as deadly as, if not more than, other cancers.

“We think the rock band thing and having a huge festival, where people play music and people are out there enjoying themselves — what’s more rebellious in rock ‘n’ roll than a huge concert where you’re not sitting around lamenting but you’re having a great time,” Boggess said.

“All the other people that show up will say, ‘What’s this all about?’ and they start learning about it and start clueing into what the real issues are.”

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