Malignant Melanoma and Music

cancer melanoma

I noticed the spot in late October – deep black and the size of a pin prick, in one of my freckles. Every time I took a shower my eyes were drawn to it and I’d think “that’s weird”.

My family doctor took a photo of the spot and within a week I was sitting with dermatologist Dr. Julia Barker and a talented resident, watching them scoop out a biopsy. Dr. Barker called the following week with news that it was malignant melanoma and she was fairly certain surgery could remove everything before any spreading into the lymph nodes. It was scheduled for a week later.

Before working in higher education, I toured as a songwriter—singing and playing the banjo, baritone ukulele and guitar across the US, in Canada, and in Europe; under wild stars in big bend national park, at festivals in the southeast, and in hip house concerts in Copenhagen. At times in my life when I needed healing, catharsis, or just a pause to appreciate life, songwriting has given me a way to express many hard-to-describe things.

In the week leading up to surgery, I listened to songs written by Gregory Alan Isakov. I’d walk my dog and let music unleash the feelings that come with thinking about the cancer in me. I have a wonderful son and husband, a lovely rescue dog and playful cat. I have an amazing job leading UVM Foundation’s corporate and foundation relations office, raising money for UVM and the UVM Medical Center. The notion that something so deadly could be lurking in such a happy life shook me.

Alexa Woodward performs a song on a guitar she won in a special UVM Cancer Center raffle.

I brought my phone, headphones and a playlist to surgery. Dr. David Li-Kang Chen greeted me warmly, talked me through the procedure then asked what kind of music I’d like to listen to. I told him about the Gregory Alan Isakov songs and he started the procedure with the song that had been comforting me the past few days, “San Luis”. I mentioned being a songwriter myself and he asked if I had recorded anything. I said yes and with a big smile he said, “Siri, play Alexa Woodward!”

Somehow, Dr. Chen turned the stuff of horror movies (sliced skin, a soldering iron that burns skin to stop the blood, and lots of tugging and strange noises) into a place where my own creativity could be part of my healing. Two days and forty stitches later, I won the UVM Cancer Center guitar raffle. I cried. From start to finish, music had walked me through this experience. How fitting that this beautiful instrument would be part of my journey forward.

My big lesson from this is that we are our bodies—and listening to mine saved my life. It also reminded me that as we move through our daily routines, we are inevitably encountering people who are suffering and bravely moving through something world-shaking and that in ordinary acts of kindness we can be a balm for one another. I’m going to try to live in that mindfulness.

I invite people whose lives have been touched by cancer to share their stories. I’ll devote my first round of songwriting on this guitar to some of your experiences, so if you have a story to tell, or someone to remember in song, reach out: alexa.l.woodward [at]

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