Cancer’s side effects.  The inside story.

Surviving cancer has a hidden side to be reckoned with.

By Khevin Barnes

A cancer diagnosis requires some quick thinking on our part, once the dust has settled and we are able to accept a future that is suddenly quite different from the one we had planned on.  One thing that most of us do as we move into the “survivor” phase of our recovery is to consider the various methods of treatment available to us and their possible side effects.

From the very beginning of my new and uncertain life, as I began to research my options with male breast cancer, I had trouble with the phrase “side effects” that accompanied virtually every form of treatment, whether chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.

Dealing with the various forms of therapy are difficult enough for a new cancer patient, but add to that the ramifications of the treatment itself and you have the “double whammy” of cancer—the tipping point where we must weigh the benefits of our cancer therapy against the possible side effects.

After my own diagnosis I spent a good deal of time reading the patient reviews of various drugs that were recommended for me, along with the long list of potential negative consequences that were listed as “side effects”.     First of all, losing one’s hair, nausea and vomiting, lymphedema, blood clots and depression are not what I would refer to as “side effects”. They definitely aren’t pushed off to anybody’s side as far as I can tell. These symptoms are in the forefront for cancer survivors. They’re not a side show, or a side dish. They’re in the center ring. Center stage. Grand Central station. They are the main event.

These so called “side effects” are what many of us experience day to day while the numerous treatments and methods and experimental drugs are doing their magic quietly on our cancer cells.

Somewhere in the background of our amazingly complex bodies, our own immune systems are busy trying to heal us. Silently. Diligently.  And what we are actually feeling is a result of those compounds that have been infused into our bloodstream which the medical practitioners hope will aid us in some way.

Let’s face it, cancer is a risky business.  But new therapies are emerging constantly, and there is great hope for a number of them in terms of the unpleasant results we sometime endure.  But in the meantime, a thorough discussion with our doctors or better yet, with fellow survivors who have traveled the cancer path before us, can help us to make the best choices for our own health and healing.

And why is it that the so called “side effects” of drugs are listed last in the dosage instructions and in the tiniest print available? The obvious answer is that they really don’t want us to focus on them, but the truth is that nobody knows better about what our bodies accept or what they reject than us. We owe it to ourselves to read the fine print. To ask questions. And to make choices based on our personal experience and the feedback we get from our own bodies.

Rarely is a treatment for cancer completely free from unwanted side effects. And so our job (as if surviving isn’t enough) is to weigh the benefits against the negative experiences, and make the choices that best serve us.   Despite all of the conflicting and confusing information swirling around us we have the deciding vote in our own health.

And in the end, our quality of life is just that.   Life with quality.


Khevin Barnes is a Male Breast Cancer survivor, magician and speaker.  He is currently writing, composing and producing a comedy stage musical about Male Breast Cancer Awareness. He travels wherever he’s invited to speak to (and do a little magic for) men and women about breast cancer.    



What does returning your shopping cart at the market have to do with surviving cancer?


In a word, everything.


I’m often intrigued by the number of shopping carts that I see at my local grocery stores that have been dragged up and over curbs, left awkwardly in the parking stalls that would ordinarily hold a car, anchored in flower beds and shoved into twisted, abandoned clusters like so many rusted orphans.

But mostly, I’m just confused.

Because it’s not only discarded baskets that I’m talking about, but a simple task that almost everyone is faced with regularly; a duty so commonplace and seemingly unimportant that its significance may surprise you.  It’s a responsibility that carries with it a crucial message and reveals at a profound level, how we live, what we believe and who we are.

Before I go any further with this, let me say that I am guilty of having left a cart or two in the parking lot in my early days of shopping, though I think of myself now as a “converted  cartie”.  So I take responsibility for my past actions.

What’s perplexing about all of this is that it doesn’t seem to reflect human nature as I actually see it.   I’m optimistic that most of us are kind, thoughtful, respectful and courteous, but I also know that we can be impatient and selfish at times.  “Why should I haul my shopping cart to the holding pen?” some might ask.  “Nobody else does”.   “I don’t have time for this.  I’ve got 3 hungry kids at home”.  “They pay those people to round up the carts, so why should I do it?”

The “rationalizer” inside of ourselves is a cunning internal accomplice designed to protect us from being wrong.  It’s this voice that cushions our ego and allows us to waver, if only for a moment, from the integrity that we owe ourselves and others.

And it’s this very voice that pulls us away from our deepest commitment to surviving our cancer.

We know when we shove that cart over the curb that something is not right. Our bodies are perfect  “lie detectors”.  When we fall away from our true nature, we contract.  And those chemicals we feel as emotions are not conducive to health and healing.  When we listen to our bodies, we are hearing either the melody of wellness—or the static of illness.  And those subtle, emotional cues are hiding inside all of the choices we make, in all that we believe and in everything that we do–even the seemingly small stuff.

During my year-long residency at the Palolo Zen Center in Hawaii I was diagnosed with male breast cancer.  And it was there that I first became aware of the frequency of those moments in which my own body actually conversed with me.  It took a cancer diagnosis to open my eyes and slow me down long enough to see that every action counts in my life.  Nothing goes unnoticed by our psyche, our physical bodies or our immune system. When we eat poorly, drink too much, sabotage our friendships, defy our our beliefs or leave our shopping cart in the parking lot (the list goes on and on) we create an atmosphere for negativity—possibly inviting sickness to grow.

When you boil it all down, this shopping cart issue is really about simply being aware of that powerful, unseen teacher that dwells within each of us.  You might call it your conscience or your spirit or the still, small voice.

Surviving cancer demands that we be attentive, in every minute and in everything we do.  The idea of living in the present moment is an old one.  It’s a cliché that is hard to grasp by virtue of its simplicity.   But at that very instant, there in the parking lot as we are faced with rushing home to make dinner for a hungry family or feeling tired and irritable from a day of shopping, we have a perfect opportunity take a brief minute out of our very busy lives to slow up a bit, breathe one more breath of life, and walk silently and authentically with our cancer—back to the little stall where the carts are stored and waiting.

And it’s right then and there that our relationship with cancer or any disease is faced head-on, directly and without excuse.  And at the end of your day that little shopping cart will be standing ready, waiting to be of service to carry our groceries, and maybe even ease that heavy load that each of us surviving cancer carries from time to time.

Male Breast Cancer Survivor

Why I celebrate my breast cancer

By Khevin Barnes


I’ll begin by telling you that I celebrate my life.  It just happens to include cancer.

Today I am 23 months a cancer survivor.  I am increasingly aware of my gift of life, and I spend a little more time as the days go by, feeling a deep sense of gratitude for receiving some more squares on my calendar.

This wasn’t the case immediately after my cancer diagnosis, mastectomy and recovery.  In fact I became a bit more reckless, not sure if my lymphedema, pain and fear would ever recede.   It did.

I have learned to accept that life is perfect—just as it is.  All that we experience is exactly what this universe has prescribed for is.  I make no religious connection here.   My observation is just the simple act of acceptance, of seeing that “Life’s Plan” is much bigger than my own.

And so I celebrate, just as human kind has done since the beginning of our presence on Earth.  We laugh, we sing, we bow down in deep reverence, we build monuments, we create art, we make music and we dance around the fire ring.

And nothing can stop this human celebration of life.

No dictator, no law, no terrorist, no belief, no proclamation, no imprisonment, no judgement, no cancer…nothing can obstruct the festival we feel inside.

No matter what our long-term outlook might be, there is certainly life after cancer.  And in cancer. And when we are in pain or fearful, this sense of life is not always easy to find, so our celebration may turn toward our family or friends, our love of nature, our memories and those miracle moments that we all have in a life.

And no matter how long we get to linger in this world, the celebration of life goes on long after we make our brief appearance here.  And that in itself is cause for celebration.

Cancer can certainly slow down our dance around the fire ring.  But it can never dowse the flame.


By Khevin Barnes


Where did cancer come from? Where did it all begin? How long has it been around?

The truth is we don’t really know, but it seems to have been present in humans and other animals since the beginning of recorded history.
Fossilized tumors have been found in Egyptian mummies and the oldest written description of cancer dates back 3,000 years.

Breast cancer surgery began in 1600’s when lymph nodes were discovered to be a part of the cancer picture, and in 1857 the so called “radical mastectomy” began to catch on in England, and that became the surgical standard for 60 long years.

In 1930, the medical profession began using radiation to alter the DNA of cancerous cells and then in 1943 the first chemotherapeutic agent was introduced.

Today the National Cancer Institute lists more than 200 chemotherapy drugs that are available.

The first record of chemotherapy being used for cancer dates back to 1600 B.C. in Egypt, and consisted of a mixture of fresh dates, limestone and water that was actually injected directly into tumors.

The results of such injections have been lost over time.

But make no mistake; we’ve come a long way. So I have to wonder just how long in the future will it be before we look back at the methods and therapy’s we use today and label them as primitive and archaic?
It’s enough to make King Tut’s beard curl.

The bottom line of course is that contemporary cancer survivors have a lot of choices to make. And we owe it to ourselves to do the research and ask tons of questions; to question everything we read and hear and every bit of advice we get, backed up by every bit of evidence to support it.

And with history on our side, the mystery of cancer may one day be fully understood. Until then we have the gift of hindsight to make informed choices in our own health.

A Cat, a can of Tuna and Cancer

By Khevin Barnes

Khevin Barnes Cat


In 1989 I bought my first house, where I lived with my first wife. This was also the year and time that we purchased our first cat. Her name was Sheba. She was a beautiful feline known as an ‘Abyssinian’. Genetic research suggests the breed originated in Egypt.
Whenever I opened a can of tuna for my lunch the cat would smell it no matter how far away she might be, or how deep in slumber, and she would invariably come running. I would lovingly drain the liquid from the can and reward her hunger with a small bowl of what I called. “Tuna Juice”.
This became a sort of ritual for us over the years, and just shouting out the words “Tuna Juice” was enough to entice Sheba to dash to the kitchen. My wife loved this cat and for a long time I believed that I was offering our pet a nutritious if not delicious snack. A decade hurried past us in the blink of an eye until the day my wife was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. A few years after that cancer took her from us and suddenly our little family was comprised of just two. Sheba and me.
For many months I was in a darkened world. I drove the cat to my Mother’s home and with hardly a goodbye to this loving animal that had been a large part of my life, I left her there. In the meantime I wandered about in my fog, unsure of what the future held. The cat had inadvertently become the symbol of my pain and all that had been taken from me.
My memory of this time has faded considerably, but I recall the day a friend asked me about my cat. I remarked that I had been pulled away not only from human contact and interaction by the death of my spouse, but that I had neglected Sheba as well. I mentioned my cat’s love of “Tuna Juice”. My friend was horrified not only that I did not share any of the actual fish, but that I had essentially poisoned my pet with salty water that hadn’t the slightest nutritional content.
I realized that what I thought had been a kind and loving moment, was actually an act of selfishness. I had greedily consumed the fish, leaving what would normally have gone down the drain for my cat to dispose of.
This may seem inconsequential and harmless, but to me this revelation was indicative of a much larger issue that was showing up in my life; the realization that I was capable of doing harm while actually believing I was spreading love. Where else was this affecting my life, I wondered?
The truth is, I found it everywhere. The very act of wandering aimlessly, lost in my grief and rejecting the goodness of people and friendships that were pounding at my locked heart was only adding to the pain that the death of my spouse had created in my world.
“Tuna Juice” had become the personification of my own life and the watered-down essence of the joylessness that I was experiencing.
Losing a friend to cancer is one of the hardest human encounters we can endure and something we cannot change. But losing oneself to life is curable.
I had allowed my view of humanity to fade away, replaced by the despair and suffocation of being abandoned. And worse yet, I had given my cat exactly what life had given me.
Isolation. Loneliness. Rejection.
Sheba died too, just a few years later. I would see her from time to time whenever I visited my mother, but I was never able to take her back, to give her the petting and the love and the real fish that she so richly deserved.
Cancer has a way of draining us, not so very unlike that can of Tuna. And love, it seems to me, can work that way too. We can hold back the real deal, while sharing our diluted version and believing we are doing good in the world.
Today I am remarried, happy and grateful for the lessons I see all around me. We don’t have a cat at the moment, but plan on finding one soon. And now I too am living as a cancer survivor. It’s funny how life lessons keep reappearing for us over and over. Sort of like those nine lives of a cat.
What have I learned from a cat, a can of tuna and cancer?
Don’t dilute the love you have. Don’t reject the love you’re offered. And share freely that which you value most.


Visit Khevin Barnes at



HEALING IN THE KEY OF “C” ………The Joy in Music for Cancer Survivors

By Khevin Barnes

Khevin at Keyboard4
I’ve been a song writer and musician for as long as I can remember. In my youth I made a meager living for a few years playing banjo in pizza parlors before graduating to night clubs. The city of Seattle once asked me to travel with a big band to Moscow, to introduce the 5-string banjo to Russian audiences. I dabbled in writing radio jingles for a while and as electronic music became more sophisticated and affordable I fell in love with composing orchestral pieces on the digital synthesizer.
This all took place long before cancer was discovered in my left breast.
Music, the universal language, has filled cathedrals and concert halls, high school gyms and old time theaters, auditoriums and opera houses since the beginning of recorded time.
But the place where music seems to resonate most lyrically and everlasting is in the human heart.
It’s through music as a songwriter that I have always recognized my avenue of self-expression and it’s in music that I’ve found deep comfort in my waltz with breast cancer.
To my ear, there is no instrument more compelling and magnificent than the human voice. We are able to express every emotion in such profound ways; to celebrate or grieve, to comfort or stir with a simple breath in and an exhale.
Nobody really knows if music is found anywhere outside our own planet. Technically, sound does not exist in space. It needs a medium such as air or water to vibrate and expand. But planets and stars and the solar wind shimmer in an elegant and primordial fellowship with all that is life, and just because we can’t hear it does not mean it isn’t there.
I feel that way about cancer. We can’t see the work our physical bodies are doing in their effort to eradicate cancer cells, but I believe our intrinsic human drive is to keep on living. We are not separate from the cellular symphony inside of us. The discord of our cancer is only a wrong note in the score of life as we express it. And I believe that with due diligence and conscious camaraderie with our own bodies, we can live in harmony once more.
The unanswered question seems to be in the way we orchestrate our healing, and that appears to be different for all of us.
I didn’t start trying to learn piano until I was sixty. But the electronic synthesizer allowed me to compose with 500 instruments at my fingertips, and I created my musical pieces one note at a time, since I am unable to read music. It was slow going but I managed to write a complete Broadway musical in this way.

This too is how I approach my cancer recovery; one note at a time, listening to the music of wellness, which sounds so much sweeter than the fear of recurrence. “Music Therapy” is actually an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.
During chemotherapy, while recovering from surgery, when things hurt and our bodies ache, a little song in your heart can be as relaxing and stress reducing as a kitten on your lap. Heck, on a really bad day why not try that little song and a kitten on your lap at the same time.

You just may make some beautiful, healing music together.
Khevin Barnes is a breast cancer survivor, speaker and song writer. His song, “What Good is a Breast?” is a respectfully irreverent and humorous salute to the human breast. You can hear it at

Or directly from YOUTUBE at the link below.

M R I….would rather not, thank you!

M R I …….would rather not, thank you.    (Examining my fear of tight spaces)
By Khevin Barnes

Good heavens, there are so many procedures and cancer tests for us to endure that I feel a bit silly bringing this up. But here goes. I’ve had male breast cancer for 15 months and I have yet to receive an MRI, PET scan or CAT scan. Now, I’ve been scheduled for my first MRI session in a few weeks’ time.
Sounds simple enough to me, except that I am unusually and excessively claustrophobic, based on a near drowning experience as a child. I’ve been told that I’ll be required to lie face down with my eyes and nose lowered into a small dark hole.
Once when my wife and I were visiting Mexico for our anniversary, she lovingly bought us two professional massage sessions. I’d never had one of those either. The very kind woman who was attending to us doused me with oils and potions that smelled of banana and mango, and had me lie on my stomach while pushing my head into an oval-shaped opening in the table, just large enough for my face. I immediately saw myself underwater, looking through a small diving mask with no way out. Needless to say I had what I would characterize as a real panic attack.
My wife was both amused and horrified as I explained to my masseuse in broken Spanish that none of this was her fault. I waited in the Cantina feeling a bit sheepish of course, but vowing to avoid the torture of a body massage for the rest of my neurotic days on Earth.
My Mammograms are tolerable. My ultrasounds have been uneventful. The needle biopsy was over before I knew it. And my breast surgery is but a phantom memory.
As I read about various cancers and the procedures that go with them, I should feel pretty darned lucky so far. And so I will have my MRI because I think it’s both wise and necessary. But I won’t hesitate to ask for an Ativan, and I’ll certainly rely on my years of Zen Meditation to pull me from the fear of the before and after and back into the very moment that I’m in. MRI will be an acronym for “MY RECOVERY INSURANCE”.

As a breast cancer survivor I guess this was just another one of those things I needed to “get off my chest”.
I feel better already.
Besides, I don’t believe anyone ever drowned on the 8th floor of a hospital.


Khevin Barnes has been a full-time professional magician for 40 years.  He prefers to have his assistant’s crawl into the tight boxes on stage whenever possible…