Fighting Cancer with Classical Piano Music

A former high school English teacher in Perth, Australia, and a gifted amateur pianist, Emily Sun now describes her main profession as a “professional cancer survivor.” In July of 2010, at the age of 33, she was diagnosed with stage 4 primary mediastinal B-cell lymphoma. She felt grateful when her cancer went into remission after treatment. A year later, however, she experienced a relapse with the same high-grade lymphoma. After four rounds of chemotherapy, she felt hopeful her second round of cancer was behind her. Yet in the last two weeks, as Emily prepared for consolidation radiation, the doctors told her the cancer cells may have returned to her body yet again.

Although currently under intensive radiotherapy treatment, Emily nonetheless summoned the energy to record excerpts from Beethoven, Schumann, and Mozart, shown in the video below. She also joined GRAND PIANO PASSION™ with grace and resilience, to share with us how classical piano music has helped her battle cancer.

How has cancer affected your piano practice?

The chemo I’ve been through has really messed with my hands. I’ve been poked and prodded, and that has caused nerve damage just when I was getting back to playing at a decent level, had started teaching kids, and had gotten my music mojo back. I am stubborn, so the idea of losing my abilities motivates me to practice as often as I do.

How does classical piano music play into your treatment?

Playing the piano is physical and emotional therapy for me. It nurtures my soul. It helps me express how I’m feeling. It reduces my consumption of ativan (some of you may know it as lorazepam). It also helps me connect with my four-year-old son. Words are insufficient at times like this. I’d rather fill my head with the Alberti bass of a Mozart sonata than narratives of doubts and fear. I may be deluded in that I believe I’m going to be okay. It’s not a given. Playing the piano keeps me in the moment, and that’s where I need to be right now.

When did you start playing the piano?

I took lessons up until I finished high school. I had an amazing piano teacher who inspired me in the last couple of years, and had he stayed in Perth, I probably wouldn’t be an amateur pianist.

How often do you get to play these days?

When I have the energy or feel like emoting, I play. I don’t feel the time passing the way I did when I was forced to practice at least an hour a day. It’s been a while since I’ve played in front of anyone, so it was nice to play for my friend who recorded me for this article. I definitely do not have the same technique as I did in my youth, but I am connecting to the music more. When I play these days, I’m always reminded of what Beethoven said about music as a higher revelation than wisdom and philosophy.

Is there certain music that best relays what you are going through?

My first cancer battle was best expressed through Beethoven’s third piano concerto, first movement: a lot of anger, questioning, moments of joy, and yet relatively brief. This time around, well, I’m still in it, so I have yet to reflect. Maybe it is like the second movement of the Pathetique. I’m determined (not that I completely have a choice) that there will be no third movement in this cancer story.

Emily’s audacity, charm, and passion shine through in the exclusive video below, in which she plays excerpts from Beethoven’s Pathetique, Schumann’s Concerto in A Minor, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in C Minor, and Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca.

If you would like to leave a wish for her health and recovery, please feel free to comment below.

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting interview. It’s amazing how she has the motivation to play piano despite the side effects of chemo. I wish Emily a full recovery and good health. Very inspiring!

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