Family Matters

When Your Doctor Is a Rock Star: Oncologists Make Music for Cancer

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If there is an upside to having gynecological cancer, it may involve bragging that your doctor is a rock star — and meaning it.

That’s what one giddy patient does in the trailer for an upcoming documentary about N.E.D., a rock band made up of six gynecological oncologists. Short for No Evidence of Disease, N.E.D. began as a way to spice up a scientific meeting. The band subsequently snagged a record deal and worked with one of David Bowie’s former producers on an album, Six Degrees, that was released over the summer. The title is a witty reference to interconnectedness as well as the six medical degrees conferred on the band members.

“Patients feel like we are their band,” says John Boggess, an associate professor of gynecological oncology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who contributes vocals, guitar and harmonica. “They feel the same way we do, that no one is talking about their experience, no one is talking about their cancers.”

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The band members, musician-physicians who hail from all over the country, from Alaska to North Carolina, came together hastily in 2008 when a colleague needed entertainment at an annual meeting of cancer doctors. The five men and one woman were a hit and set about recording an album of original songs, with all the proceeds — minus expenses — going to raise awareness for gynecological cancers.

Each year at least 80,000 women are diagnosed with gynecological cancer, including cancers of the ovaries, uterus, cervix, endometrium, vagina, vulva, and pregnancy-related cancers that arise in the fallopian tubes or from the placenta. These cancers may not be as widespread as breast cancer, which is diagnosed in 160,000 women a year, but they aren’t rare. Yet they don’t have the cachet that breast cancer does. N.E.D.’s surgeons like to say ruefully that breast cancer has its pink ribbon, but gynecologic cancer has its own rock band — and their own impassioned groupies.

Last month, one fan posted on Facebook about her crush: “That very cute Dr. Boggess is my favorite!” A patient, Carolyn Stanley Cox, replied: “That very cute Dr. Boggess saved my life. He is my favorite, too!”

So far, N.E.D. has raised more than $250,000 — just a tiny fraction of the money poured into breast-cancer research. “Gynecological cancer research doesn’t receive even 1% of what goes to breast-cancer research,” says Boggess. “The reality is you can’t buy a loaf of bread anymore without donating to breast-cancer research. I’m not knocking breast-cancer research, but it’s not the only cancer women suffer from.”

Gynecological cancers, in fact, can be far deadlier. Ovarian cancer, for example, has a 20% five-year survival rate compared with 75% for breast cancer.

MORE: Screening for Ovarian Cancer Doesn’t Increase Women’s Survival

Most people, says Boggess, don’t even know the symptoms of ovarian cancer, which include abdominal bloating or weight gain, early satiety (feeling full before finishing a meal), abdominal pain and constipation. Uterine cancer, the most common gynecological cancer, involves postmenopausal bleeding, bleeding in between periods or particularly heavy periods.

The band’s professional obligations and their geographic locations make it difficult to schedule concert dates. They performed in July at the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance annual conference in Washington, D.C., and in October at the N.C. Museum of Art. As their following grows, they hope to arrange “microtours,” short bursts of tour dates that allow them to promote their new CD without stepping away from the operating room for too long.

Six Degrees mixes electric rock, R&B and acoustic bluegrass. According to the band’s website:

“Nevermind” is driven by rapid-fire lead guitar and forceful lyricism about being able to let go of angst and refusing to let troubles become paralyzing; “Let the Singing Begin” is a salute to the indomitable spirit of the women these musician-physicians treat. “Running in Circles” (which is the first single off the album) is about survival and the internal world we possess that allows us to cope and thrive, even in the face of threats beyond our control.”

While the songs are not specifically about cancer, singing about loss, for example, takes on a more profound meaning when the vocalist is an oncologist who has seen hundreds of patients die. Mostly, though, the band is trying to engender hope — and not a small amount of activism — in their fan base. “Our goal is to get people to understand what gynecological cancers are,” says Boggess.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.