“Cancer is a motherfucker that also attacks your mental health.”
That’s how Canadian punk rock artist Bif Naked recalls her bout with breast cancer in an episode of Cypher, a web series that features musicians discussing the importance of caregiving for people with mental-health issues.
There’s a certain word in that sentence that’s bleeped out, but her line about cancer affecting your mental health is the part that sticks with you by the end of the episode.
“Just imagining being diagnosed with cancer causes people to lose sleep,” she said in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight from Toronto. “People are afraid of cancer. They’re afraid of being sick, they're afraid of dying. Already, it's like a big doom cloud in the sky for anybody.
“And then, if you are given a diagnosis of cancer, all of those original feelings are already there ready to go. On top of that, you seriously have to consider whether or not you're going to survive.”
Naked, whose real name is Beth Tolbert, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 before undergoing both chemotherapy and a lumpectomy. Today, she volunteers as a caregiver for cancer patients to support them through their journey.
Cypher is hosted by the motivational speaker Asante Haughton. In Naked's episode, titled “Sorority”, she chats with Haughton about the emotional toll that cancer can have on someone, as well as the importance of caregiving for patients.
She describes how other people in a cancer patient’s life actually begin to avoid them after they're diagnosed. Although it causes lots of patients to become anxious, Naked chooses to believe there’s actually a benevolent explanation for this.
“The truth is they probably don't know what to say,” she said. “They don't want to say the wrong thing. So that's why they stopped calling you, or that's why they stop coming around.”
Throughout the episode, Naked highlights the importance of peer support for people living with cancer. During her treatments, she participated in a study with 99 other women with cancer that looked at how different forms of exercise affected bone density in cancer patients. (She recalled that she hoped to become “become Lou Ferrigno” through all of the exercise, but she wound up in the low-cardio group.)
Collectively, Naked and the 99 other women began to form an intense bond with one another over their shared experiences.
“It's not our normal day-to-day life to go through chemotherapy,” she explained. “It upsets the apple cart of your life story, actually.
“So all these women who are in this turmoil, physiologically, emotionally, psychologically…they’re all in a room together, three days a week, able to commiserate together and to laugh together and share stories, give each other advice, kind of almost like a group therapy.”
Referring to them as her “sorority”, Naked credits them as a major source of support during her treatment. Although some of the women didn’t survive, Naked said she’s still friends with many of them today.
She is cancer-free now, but she’s still providing peer support to cancer patients through her volunteering. She’ll tag along with someone to their medical appointment, join them on a nature walk, go for coffee with them, or talk about something other than their cancer to keep them occupied—ultimately, anything to give them the support they need.
“For me, it's kind of natural in a way just because I am a performer. So if there's a situation that's awkward or the family is awkward, I'm always a class clown and it's my job to break the ice. And I think that's why I'm built to be a medical volunteer. It's my job. I'm an elevated talker. I love talking and I love people. So it's a good fit for me.”
As part of her appearance on Cypher, Naked collaborated with the Juno-nominated hip-hop artist D’sisive on a song called “Live Forever”, in which she recalls how her sorority gave her the strength to get through her cancer battle.
“It's one of those nothing's-going-to-keep-me-down type of songs,” she said. “It's meant to be uplifting and motivating. It's meant to share that no matter what knocks us down, we're going to just keep getting up.”
When asked how other people could provide support to those living with cancer, Naked's answer was simple: be a pest with your support, and be confident that you’re not going to bother them.
“A lot of people talk about how their neighbors came over with a pie, or these little things that we all think, in a way, sound very unsophisticated and simple,” she said. “But really, it's the greatest thing in the world that you can do for someone, or for a family that may really have their whole world turned upside down.”