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Hitting the Downbeat: A Musician's Journey to Survival

Network - Spring 2007

By J. Michael Loeffert, in his own words

It was one of those nights that I couldn’t sleep. You know what I mean. It’s frustrating, especially when you can’t figure out why. But, I knew why. The expanse of the city’s late October lights viewed out the ninth floor window was a welcome diversion to my insomnia. My glasses on the nightstand were just out of reach. I laid there staring into the night, playing games, closing one eye at a time to figure out which was weakest, or squinting to make the out-of-focus lights look like they shone through a starburst lens. Oddly enough, it was sort of pretty.

Suddenly, I heard hushed voices of those scurrying about just outside the door. My pillowcase softly crunched as I rolled my head to the other side. The games I had been playing with Houston’s city lights were over. Now they gave a soft glow to four bags hanging on a wheeled stand. Drip ... drip ... drip .... 

Eight months earlier, I was enjoying my first sip of morning coffee and a freshly lit cigarette. As I tilted my head back to shave, I noticed a small lump on the left side, just below the bottom of my beard line. Six weeks later, the lump had doubled both in size and number.

Defining moments

There are defining moments that change us forever. On May 27, 2005, it took just five seconds to make 54 years disappear: “Mr. Loeffert, you have a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma called mantle cell.” All the things dearest to me faded into a haze. No longer was I the youngest of four sons, or the father of two beautiful and accomplished daughters. No longer was I a musician, composer or writer. My singing voice was now silenced. Suddenly, the only thing that existed was the fight.

With change comes challenge. My first challenge was to change my mind by educating myself. I joined two Internet chat groups, which, in turn, led me to
M. D. Anderson. Another change was to my body with nutrition, supplemental vitamins, minerals, herbs and exercise. Staying open to all possibilities of healing led me to acupuncture as well as guided imagery. The cigarettes? I put them down once and for all. And my coffee miraculously turned into green tea!?

Soon I was staring out the window watching Columbus, Ohio, disappear beneath the clouds on my way to Houston. After my assessment, I arrived home with renewed confidence, as well as determination and hope.

But, I soon realized that I had been so one-dimensional in my quest for healing that I hadn’t once uttered the words, “I …  have …  cancer.” Then, I remembered the advice of a martial arts instructor: “Embrace your enemy. Only then can you disarm your enemy.” Soon I accepted my condition. I cried. I cursed. I joked about it. I cried some more.

“Am I in remission?” I asked. Michael Wang, M.D., [assistant professor in the Department of Lymphoma] smiled with the assurance of a commanding officer about to share the news of victory.

As I waited to board my flight home, my father’s words echoed in my mind, “relax and regroup” — and also, reclaim. The haze had lifted. I was, once again, the youngest of four sons, a father, a musician and writer. I would sing again.  

I flew home, watching that late-June sunset. Her radiance danced amongst the clouds and was breathtakingly beautiful. As she waved goodbye, I had the promise that I would see her again, but in a different light, rising on a new day and shining on a new life. Mine. And I would play and sing a new song as a cancer survivor.

It was another one of those nights that I couldn’t sleep. But this time it was exhilarating.

Editor's Note: J. Michael is an active bassist in the Columbus music scene; he may be reached at

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center