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State of Wonder

Decemberists' Conlee On Cancer: 'Things Are Better ... Kind Of'

Back in 2011, after releasing their chart-topping LP The King is DeadThe Decemberists went on hiatus. The break coincided with a very tough time for the band’s keyboard player, Jenny Conlee.

Jenny Conlee

Jenny Conlee

Oregon Art Beat

Back in spring of 2011, Conlee was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 38. Her sister had been diagnosed before her, and Conlee got checked on as a precaution. She remembers what happened next. “I kind of knew in my heart that it was positive. Plus when you get the mammogram and they take you into the little ‘cry room’ with the tissues, like before you even meet with the doctor…That didn’t seem like the way it usually goes, for most people. Most people just leave through this door. I went through the other door.”

Conlee had been on tour with the Decemberists, but she dropped out to begin treatment. She began chemotherapy, and experienced physical exhaustion and the mental fatigue patients refer to as chemo brain. “That was awful and I don’t think I was properly prepared for that. I just felt like ‘Oh, now I can’t remember anything.’ And once I was done with treatment the band had gone on hiatus so I needed to work so I started teaching and just scheduling my week was really difficult, like the simplest tasks.” She says, “I did feel like, ‘Oh I think my old life is done.’ “

She feared she couldn’t physically play music at the same level again. But she still practiced nearly every day during treatment. “My band Black Prairie was incredibly supportive and would come over while I was doing chemo. We’d do some songwriting sessions while I couldn’t leave the couch.”

Jenny Conlee (center) with her bandmates in Black Prairie

Jenny Conlee (center) with her bandmates in Black Prairie

She still has to limit her time with the bulky, heavy accordion, but she feels she’s getting her confidence back. Plus, she smiles, “Rock n’ roll, it’s about attitude more than a lot of high level skills.”

She says she’s come out the other side more opened up. “I became a freer person,” she says. “I think having cancer opens your mind in a way…Facing your end of life, that’s just something really big. It’s really ugly and gross and then you get through it and things are better, kind of, except not feeling good all the time”

Of course, it’s hard to say there’s a bright side to going through cancer, but Conlee says she now feels a deep connection with other survivors. “Now I see someone who has no hair and I want to go and hug them…It’s like, this amazing closeness with everyone who’s been over this same mountain and you end up together.”

“Going through treatment, I needed to feel supported. I needed to feel loved, cause that’s kind of what makes you feel like being alive. You get down to those simple things and one of them is ‘I want people to love me and I want to love other people.’”

That drive has spurred Conlee to help put on a yearly event called Notes of Hope, which is aimed at cancer patients between the ages of 15 and 39. That age range can have a hard time finding a community of survivors. Mindy Buchanan is the program coordinator of Oregon Health and Science University’s Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology Program.  “It’s one of the most common things that we find in this age range is the isolation…You’re either a young person on an adult ward…and you’re surrounded by your parents and grandparents, or you may be on the younger side and you’re surrounded by five year olds.”

Notes of Hope will feature music and storytelling by young adult cancer survivors, including Conlee and Portland musician Pete Krebs — himself a veteran of not one, but two bouts with cancer. The hope is to bring people together and make sure they have the support they need. It takes place Friday, Nov. 14 at the Alberta Rose Theater.

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