Left in the Starlight: What David Bowie Meant To Me

In the summer of 1998, I played The Rise Of Ziggy Stardust on a loop because I’d fallen in love with a sound clip of Bowie from the Microsoft Encarta CD that came with my computer. But eventually I got tired of it and for seventeen years I didn’t pay much attention to David Bowie. Then at one point I was recovering in the hospital from my RPLND in December, 2015.

An RPLND is a surgery that removes abdominal lymph nodes. My RPLND took over thirteen hours. One night, while I was swimming in a river of pain, Bowie’s "Five Years" came on a playlist. "Five Years" is a song sung by a narrator who is watching the apocalypse unfold around him. As anyone who has been through the dark days of cancer knows, at times it feels like you’re watching the world and the systems that you thought were permanent crumble around you. I decided to listen to more Bowie.

My RPLND caused a condition called chylous ascites that meant every two weeks for two months doctors drained my stomach. My body was so bruised from being immobilized during surgery I couldn’t even sit down. I stayed in the back bedroom of my father’s cottage. Collapsed in bed. Blown out by pain. That’s how I listened to Bowie’s final album Blackstar the day it was released. The dark, atmospheric sound of Blackstar and the songs scared me.

The following Monday, I was in one of my various states of pain when my girlfriend walked into the bedroom to tell me that Bowie had passed. Cancer. Metastatic. The thing that you must understand about cancer is it doesn’t care about talent, age, money, or fame. We are completely powerless against what cancer decides to do. Cancer takes heroes, villains, and it takes regular people, too. Cancer takes whoever it wants to. When David Bowie died, it broke my heart.

A few weeks later, I watched the surreal and nightmarish music video for Bowie’s Blackstar one afternoon before a nap. That afternoon, I had a nightmare which would become reoccurring: I was driving through Baljennie, Saskatchewan, got hurt, was rescued by two sisters and taken to a big brick home, only it turned out the sisters had an ulterior motive and I always woke up from the dream being crucified to a cornstalk. The dream symbolized how I’d felt: I had thought the RPLND was going to be the end of a long road, but the surgery had actually thrown me into a deeper darkness than I imagined.

As much as Bowie’s music has been the soundtrack accompanying the terror of my journey, his music has also been a source of blind strength. To slow down ascites, I was required to inject somatostatin once each morning, afternoon, and night. I had a ritual. I would take a sterile pad and new hypodermic needle out of the cabinet, a bottle of somatostatin from the refrigerator. Next I would turn on the song "Station to Station," which opens a few minutes of droning guitar that mimics a train building up speed, ominously. Plodding. That’s how cancer and death felt in those days. As the song was taking off, I’d fill my syringe with somatostatin and push the needle back to empty out the air.

I always waited until the second verse of the song when Bowie sings "drive like a demon from station to station" to plunge the needle into my leg and shoot. To me, I was running against cancer, going from one station of suffering to the next as hard and as fast as I possibly could. There were many nights I would wake from bed blasting "Station to Station" into the darkness as I injected somatostatin.

I’ve listened to the same Station to Station hundreds of time since Bowie passed, but the line about going station to station has changed. It isn’t about suffering any longer; that line now reminds me that as testicular cancer survivors, we must go from station to station like Paul Revere to warn the others about adequate screening methods and how awful testicular cancer can be.

In 2016, we lost David Bowie to cancer--but for me and many others, Station to Station and many of the other Bowie albums will remain in heavy circulation for quite some time to come, if not forever. While I didn’t know David Bowie personally, I know his music like a best friend and it helped me get through the most difficult time in my life. Bowie came, he made great music of great power and at times fear, and when he left this world the rest of us were left standing in the starlight.

Was there a particular celebrity or musician that helped you through cancer treatment? Share your coping hero in the comments below.

Photo courtesy of Adam Bielawski