Klahanie resident inspires anthem for cancer survivors
December 7, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
The letter from Klahanie recounted a familiar story: a bombshell cancer diagnosis, strength-sapping treatment, but also, interlaced among the sentences, hope.
Melody Christensen, breast cancer survivor and Klahanie stay-at-home mother of four, offered the candid account as inspiration to contemporary Christian musician Matthew West.
Christensen liked the authenticity West imbued in songs about faith amid personal struggle, but as she prepared to send the message on a spring day, she had no expectations.
“I felt like it was time for me to share — even if it didn’t go anywhere — what I’d been through,” she said.
Christensen received a surprising phone call months later. West had used the letter as a springboard for a song about cancer on a soon-to-be-released album.
The album — the aptly titled “The Story of Your Life” — mines intimate and often-heartrending stories from Christensen and other fans.
“Through the years, I’ve been so inspired by the people who would send me an e-mail or share with me at a concert how a song has found its way into their story and inspired them in one way or another,” West said in a phone interview from Nashville, Tenn. “I just started thinking, ‘What if I turned the microphone around?’”
The concept compelled the performer — and songwriter for country stars Rascal Flatts and Billy Ray Cyrus — to act more like a storyteller.
West put out a call for stories in February. The letters, e-mails and online messages arrived in a deluge — 10,000 in all.
Songwriters often dig deep inside for inspiration. The call for stories meant West had to relinquish the process to unseen fans.
“That was the scary part about it,” he recalled. “There’s an element of control when you know what you’re writing about. I think that was the hardest part, was waiting for people to send their stories in and not knowing what their stories were going to be about.”
A ‘victory song’
West had been booked to perform at a March celebration to open Eastridge Church. Christensen chanced upon the call for stories online not long before the Issaquah performance. Then, she and 15-year-old daughter Taylor penned a message to West.
The singer-songwriter gathered the stories and holed up in a rented cabin in rural Tennessee.
“There’s an element of a story that resonates in your own life,” West said. “You’re still writing from their perspective, but you’re seeing some of yourself in that story.”
The outside-of-the-box songwriting presented challenges as West pored through the messages to search for common threads.
“I think it was difficult at times, but it was also liberating at times. Instead of worrying about, ‘Will radio play this song?’ or ‘Will people buy this record?’” he said, “I really felt like there was a bond between me and the 10,000 who sent their stories. Those people were my main focus.”
The note from Christensen served as the foundation for “Survivors” — a soft-rock anthem nestled on the album alongside songs about abuse, divorce and other misfortunes. West describes “Survivors” as a “victory song.”
“In the middle of these seemingly hopeless situations, I would see this other word that appeared so many times, and that was the word survivor,” he said.
Christensen received the breast cancer diagnosis at age 31, but only after she discovered a lump and prodded doctors to conduct more tests.
“Even the first time, when the doctors were telling me, ‘No, don’t worry about it. You’re too young to have breast cancer. It’s not cancer. You’re going to be fine,’ they were kind of just waving me off,” she recalled. “I just had that feeling inside and I knew that that was God prompting me, and saying, ‘Something’s wrong. Pursue this.’”
‘I relate to this’
Since the initial diagnosis more than a decade ago, Christensen has endured divorce and another cancer bout.
“If I don’t make it, then I know where I’m going,” she said. “I have that comfort that I’m going to heaven. I know that God’s going to bring me through it.”
Christensen has experienced joys, too, during the past decade: remarriage and “miracle babies” Jessica and Scott. The close-knit family attends Eastridge Church.
“It’s been so huge how my church family has supported me, and the faith with my family and how we’ve depended on God just to get us through this season,” Christensen said.
The success story she had described in the note to West added a challenging chapter. The cancer reappeared in the months since she had sent the letter and the call from West’s representative.
Christensen asked the representative if the recurrence disqualified the story from inclusion on the album. The response: no. “Survivors” had already struck a chord.
“There’s an irony in that an album of songs inspired by such specific topics is strangely universal in the way that people are receiving it,” West said.
The record label sent a pre-release copy of the album to Christensen, and her younger children danced to the song after she pushed play.
“It was unreal. I couldn’t believe that this was a song that was inspired by my story,” she said.
Before the album came out in October, West called Christensen and told her the song had already inspired poignant moments at concerts.
“The neat thing that meant so much to me was when he said that when they’ve played this at their concerts as they’ve been touring, is how many people have responded to it and how many people have raised their hand and said, ‘Oh yeah, I relate to this,’” Christensen said. “That’s what really means the most to me. I want my story to help others and give others hope.”
On the Web
Watch contemporary Christian musician Matthew West perform “Survivors,” a song inspired by Issaquah breast cancer survivor Melody Christensen — and read her message to the artist — at West’s website.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.