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Jazz Musician and Breast Cancer Survivor Virginia Mayhew

In Her Own Words

by Laura Shipp

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Saxophonist Virginia Mayhew has been an active participant in the New York jazz scene since 1987. In the course of her career, she has worked with such renowned artists as Earl “Fatha” Hines, Frank Zappa, James Brown, Norman Simmons, Al Grey, and many others. She has appeared in most of the city’s jazz venues, as well as having performed throughout the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world. Virginia is also a breast cancer survivor. The vibrant jazz artist opens up to Coping® magazine about her 2005 battle with cancer and how she views life now that she’s on the other side.

What is the status of your cancer now?
No cancer! I get regular checkups, mammograms, and MRI as recommended.

What’s the first thing you did when you found out you had cancer?
I called the doctor with the best reputation in New York.

What type of treatment did you have?
I had surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. I also had some acupuncture to help with nausea, but I’m not sure how well it worked.

Did you have to deal with any unpleasant side effects?
The chemo knocked me down, especially after the second session. I felt poisoned and physically overwhelmed. It also put me into menopause, so I was dealing with hot flashes. Afterwards, I had chemo brain for a while.

Was there anything that really helped you cope with your illness?
Yes. Not thinking about it. I had to do what I had to do to beat cancer, and there was no time for self-pity. I just kept going.

Did having cancer affect your career as a musician?
I practiced much less than usual during my illness, and I didn’t write or arrange much of anything. I just showed up for what I could and only played about three quarters of my gigs during treatment. But I was lucky to be able to arrange my treatments so that I could still do my biggest gigs, even if I wasn’t at my very best. Often, I had to sit down during my performances.

“I had to do what I had to do; there was no time for self-pity.”

How did your diagnosis affect the people close to you?
Some of the people closest to me didn’t really talk to me about it. It was disappointing how some people I considered my friends just disappeared. But people I didn’t know at all would come up to me and share their own stories and hope.

What was the most difficult challenge you’ve had to face?
Getting my energy and strength back. It was a long and frustrating experience. I am only now, almost five years later, really feeling good.

How has cancer changed the way you view life?
I appreciated life before I got cancer, but now I appreciate each moment even more. I have cut out things that take away time from what I really want to do. I have more faith in myself musically.

What lessons have you learned?
Early detection is key. Don’t waste time or energy on things that are not important. Make time for the things and people that are important to you. Appreciate each moment, and make the most of it.

What does being a survivor mean to you?
I don’t really feel like a survivor. People use that term a lot, but I prefer to focus on the future. I have pretty much forgotten that I had cancer. Other people are much more aware that I had cancer than I am.

What is in the future for you now?
I am still a jazz musician, practicing, writing and arranging, playing gigs, and working to become a better musician. I just attained my 4th degree black belt in karate from the World Seido Karate Organization. I am working hard and enjoying life!

What advice do you have for someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer?
Get to the very best doctor you can, immediately. Don’t spend time exclusively with “alternative” approaches. Keep a positive attitude, and look to the future.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

To learn more about Virginia Mayhew and her music, go to

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2010.