Portland-based songwriter Jessica Boudreaux.
Eirinn Gragson


Battling cancer during COVID-19, a rock musician finds strength in the quiet parts

By Jerad Walker (OPB)
April 3, 2021 1 p.m.

Jessica Boudreaux is undergoing an artistic transformation while normalizing illness, treatment and recovery to a devoted group of online fans.

The Portland rock band Summer Cannibals is really, really loud.


How loud? During a recording session at Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2016, the group, fronted by singer and guitarist Jessica Boudreaux, made the newsroom floor shake. In fact, out of the hundreds of performances recorded during the public media company’s long and storied history of producing live music sessions, none has elicited more noise complaints from OPB announcers and reporters.

“That’s exactly what I want to hear,” Boudreaux, sounding proud and clearly amused, said after being informed of the infamous event during a recent interview.

Don’t believe us? Watch the performance:

While Summer Cannibals may be raucous, Boudreaux rightly points out that the band’s sound is rooted in pop melody.

“I think you can sing along to it,” she added, citing her deep love of pop music.

Still, longtime fans of the band might be surprised to hear the songwriter’s latest solo release, the single “My Price.” It’s a true pop song built on top of soft layers of synths and guitars.

“It’s more chill,” Boudreaux said with a knowing laugh.

But that’s only part of the story. The song actually represents more of an evolution than a departure.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Boudreaux’s hard-charging touring band was immediately grounded. For the musician, it was shocking at first. But that initial jolt eventually gave way to a surprising sensation: relief.

“You know, as scary as that whole situation was, we were all pretty burnt out,” she said. “I think it was a wake-up call that we should take more breaks because that constant grind does get pretty exhausting.”

In the downtime, Boudreaux began a passion project, working on new, pop-driven material with an eye for writing and producing for other musicians. She also started painting again, something the 30-year-old artist hadn’t done since college.

Then came the diagnosis.

In November 2020, Boudreaux found out she had breast cancer, and she began a grueling regimen of tests and chemotherapy. Along the way, she documented much of her experience on social media, gaining a following of well-wishers and other young cancer patients who were buoyed by her story during the isolation of the pandemic.

For the most part, she put her art on hold to focus on her treatment.

“I was not able to put this experience into a song or even start to broach the subject,” she said. “It just didn’t feel doable at all.”

During her final week of chemotherapy, Boudreaux finally felt the urge to write again. That’s when she wrote and recorded “My Price.”

“I’ve never let myself be as vulnerable as the song that I just put out,” admits Boudreaux. “I feel like there’s a lot of strength in the more quiet moments where you kind of just really point blank let someone know how you’re feeling.”

Jessica Boudreaux joined OPB to chat about her very public battle with breast cancer and her new music. Boudreaux plans to release a full-length solo pop record in the coming year.

Jerad Walker: You’re perhaps best known as the lead singer and guitarist of the band Summer Cannibals. Jessica, how would you describe that band for someone that’s never heard them before?

Jessica Boudreaux: Oh, man, um, loud?

JW: Uh, yeah. You’re loud. [Laughter]

JB: Yeah. [Laughter]

Lots of fuzz and distortion. But I think the band is still pretty rooted in pop melodies. And I think you can sing along to it and stuff. Lots of energy.

JW: Your band is really energetic. And I think you’re at your best in a live setting. Your band also tours quite a lot. Were you on the road when the COVID-19 outbreak started?

JB: Yeah, we were. We were on a West Coast tour.

JW: What was that transition like going from a semi-nomadic existence to being stuck at home completely overnight?


JB: You know, as scary as that whole situation was, we were all pretty burnt out. I think it was a wake-up call that we should take more breaks because that constant grind does get pretty exhausting.

JW: What did you do in the downtime initially?

JB: I wrote a ton of music. And [got] to paint, which is something that I haven’t done since I was in college-- you know, 10 years ago.

JW: What drew you back to visual art?

JB: There is something really just so mindful about painting. My anxiety just disappears. It has been nice to be able to have a creative outlet that—there’s not a lot of stock in it for me, you know. I don’t do it for any reason except for to entertain myself and have another outlet. I don’t have to use my words.

JW: And it seems like you kind of had settled into a little bit of a rhythm there. But in November of 2020, you got news that would become a life-changing event. You announced that you had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

JB: Yes.

JW: What went through your mind when you got the news?

JB: Oh, my God. Just like everything. My mind was racing [and] going through so many different stages. I didn’t cry that first day that I got diagnosed. I was just like “I’m going to do this. I got this.”

I went online and ordered all these books. It was fight or flight and I was like “I’m going to fight.” And then, you know, I crashed pretty hard the next day.

JW: How did the pandemic affect things and how you interacted with the world during that period?

JB: I’ve never been a patient before. I didn’t know what that was like. And when you get diagnosed with cancer, you’re at a different doctor’s appointment every day. Those first few weeks, it’s scans and blood tests and all of these different things. And you’re meeting with all these people, and I had to go into all of those alone--my first MRI, my first PET scan, all of these things. And it was coming off of a year of being pretty isolated, too.

So in addition to being scary and new, it was also scary to be in all of these medical facilities during COVID. I do still feel just on the defense constantly.

JW: I was shocked to find out that people undergoing cancer treatment didn’t automatically qualify for the vaccine in most states. Were you frustrated with Oregon’s rollout in any way?

JB: Absolutely. I was in chemotherapy. I just finished two weeks ago, and I’m preparing to go in for surgery. And I’m still not eligible in Oregon. And I was desperately trying to find a way. People would be like “Oh, just lie. Oh, you know you need it. You need it. You have cancer.” But I just couldn’t do it. I am eligible in Washington now, so I have a vaccine appointment and I’m going to be able to be vaccinated before I have to have surgery, which has been a massive relief.

I don’t want to go through chemo for breast cancer at 30 and then go through all that just to catch COVID in the hospital.

[Editor’s note: Jessica received her first vaccine dose in Washington state this week]

JW: Throughout all of this, what surprised you the most about yourself or maybe even other people?

JB: My body and my health is vulnerable. Emotionally, it’s just a really vulnerable and intense thing to go through. I’m by bald, which I never thought I would ever look in the mirror and see myself without hair.

But through all that, I’m finding that-- kind of when I step outside of myself and I watch myself—[I] continue to show up, continue to show up when I’m terribly anxious, continued to show up when I feel like crap. I didn’t know that I had that in me. I didn’t know that I would be in an infusion chair getting chemotherapy with a port in my chest laughing and making jokes with nurses and kind of enjoying myself.

I haven’t lost myself in that. I’ve actually developed a greater sense of who I am.

JW: You mentioned the vulnerability. You initially said that you wouldn’t post too much about your treatment on social media when you announced your diagnosis. But along the way, you’ve been incredibly open about the disease and how it’s impacted your life. I’ve been rooting for you from the outside, and it’s been really heartening to see you go through this with so much honesty, but it really is a personal experience. Why did you change your mind about that and decide to share so much?

JB: I started to realize, one, people need to know that this happens. People need to know that they need to be checking themselves-- and especially young people. But I think really it was the younger people, like people my age, who reached out, who are going through it, who felt like it was encouraging to see someone sharing the experience and sharing the experience in what I feel like is a positive way. I feel like it’s an honest thing. You know, I’m not sharing the parts of the experience where I’m on the bathroom floor crying, which happens. But I think it was important to me to just be real about the experience and also kind of let people know that they’re not alone in going through it.

JW: Through all this change and what sounds like a fair amount of trauma, you kept making music, but it’s not at all what listeners of Summer Cannibals would expect. You debuted a song called “My Price” on Bandcamp a few weeks ago, and it sounds like it directly references your past year.

JB: Yes, absolutely. You know, it’s more chill. [Laughter]

With as much as I’ve been writing the last year when I got diagnosed, I stopped. I was not able to put this experience into a song or even start to broach the subject. It just didn’t feel doable at all. But one day, you know, I just decided I wanted to go mess around and I sat down and wrote and made this entire track and song in a few hours that day.

It was [written] the week before my final round of chemo, and it was about the questions that went through my head and the thoughts that went through my head with the diagnosis. But then also, the chorus is me kind of reminding myself, even if I have bad days, even if I’m crying, even if I’m kind of struggling through certain times or parts of this experience, it does not mean that I’m not strong and just like crushing this and like doing everything that I can and being everything that I can’t be.

It was so therapeutic to write. It felt so good, and I ended up putting the song out like five days later.

JW: It’s funny you say all this because, as a listener, I always got the impression that Summer Cannibals was a cathartic project for you, a way to maybe focus and even let go of anger or things that bothered you. And despite the sonic differences between that band and your newer solo music, it still seems like that’s sort of the case here. There’s a catharsis involved.

JB: Oh, for sure, it’s just a totally different kind to me. I’ve never let myself be as vulnerable as the song that I just put out, and I feel like there’s a lot of strength in the more quiet moments where you kind of just really point blank let someone know how you’re feeling.


Tags: Culture, Music