Dreams Coming True After Cancer
- The Voice contestant Andrew Marshall, 21, who battled leukemia, shares his incredible experience of meeting his music idol John Mayer.
- Marshall details his leukemia battle, the wide range of emotions he felt while dealing with treatment through high school and college, and how everyone should go through therapy to process these emotions.
- Marshall stresses the importance of living your passion, and credits cancer, along with his doctor and Mayer, for steering him in this direction and leading him to The Voice.
Topping the list: John Mayer.Read More
“It was amazing. It was so validating,” Marshall says meeting Mayer. ” … he had genuine reactions to my music, and he genuinely was like, ‘That’s a really good lyric,’ or he’s like, ‘You know what you’re doing. You’re a genius, man.’ I really felt like we both had a really good connection that day, and it was really, really cool.” The Make-A-Wish Foundation arranged the meeting.
It made sense that Marshall would later use one of John Mayer’s songs, “Gravity,” to wow coaches Blake Shelton, John Legend and Kelly Clarkson on The Voice and specifically, singer Nick Jonas, who picked Marshall for his team. “I’m definitely feeling grateful. It’s just been a whirlwind of messages,” he says of his newfound fame since first appearing on the hit reality competition series last week.
The show continued with its blind auditions last night and Andrew will be back for the next phase, the Battle Rounds, which start next week.
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Seeming much wiser than his 21 years, perhaps due in part to his battle with cancer at such a young age, the Boxton, Massachusetts native stresses his intention to stay grounded as he navigates through this new chapter.
“In times like these, it’s always important just to kind of ground yourself and remind yourself what you’re doing this for and how you got here. And seeing some of these messages come in and even messages from survivors or people that are going through it right now is—I just remind myself that that’s why I’m doing it. I’m just so grateful, but it’s just wild to be here, you know?”
Marshall admits there was an adjustment period after the whirlwind of his successful blind audition (filmed last fall and aired last week), but overall, even before the show happened, he has strived to be “open and honest” with fans and followers about his experiences, including cancer and its positive and negative aftermath.
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Marshall’s passion has always been music. “I was in the band and choir, all that kind of stuff, and loved songwriting.” Like most kids in high school, however, he felt stressed to plan out his life in the “real” world.
“There’s a lot of pressure, about what school are you going to apply to, what school are you going to get into, and what’s your GPA, and what classes are you taking,” he says. “A lot of stress for a high schooler for sure, and I remember junior year when this all started to go down, I was in a state where I was pretty stressed out a lot. I was staying up really late.”
He tried to make time for his music, but didn’t think it would fit in with his future. “I knew it was something I always wanted to do, but I was just going through it day by day, waiting for the school musical to start up in the winter.” Little did he know that cancer would bring him closer to making his dream a reality.
One day in chorus class, a friend voiced concern over Marshall’s appearance. “‘You look a little weird, Andrew.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean? I feel fine. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And then throughout the day, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, Andrew your eyes are yellow. This is kind of strange.'”
He texted a picture of himself to his mother, who is a nurse. She was nervous but said the yellowing of his eyes could mean many different things and said as long as he feels okay, he could stay in school that day. Marshall wanted to audition for his favorite musical, The Wedding Singer.
His parents parents picked him up right after the audition and headed to their local hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital.
“I spent the next couple of days just getting tested for everything: mono, hepatitis, TB (Tuberculosis), every disease under the sun I was tested for … I had a leukemia test earlier on, and that was negative, and so we were feeling good, like we just thought it was something viral or whatever, and all the doctors pretty much on my team are leaning towards that. They were like, ‘You know what? Let’s just rest up for the week in the hospital, get you some fluid and stuff, and we’ll send you on your way. I’m sure your liver count will go back to normal.'”
One of Marshall’s doctors, Dr. Alison Friedmann, said she wanted to do one more test for leukemia. When she walked in after the results came back, “instead of saying, ‘You’re good,’ she was like, ‘Let me grab a chair.’ And that was all I needed to know,” he recalls. “I remember just sitting in the bed, my sister’s hugging me, and just being kind of frozen.”
It was acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), a type of blood cancer that starts in the white blood cells in your bone marrow. It understandably took some time for Marshall to adjust to his life-changing news.
“Knowing that you had three-and-a-half years of treatment ahead of you, and you’re just a 16-year-old kid, you just want to get your license, you just want to go back to school. You quickly need to reevaluate everything that you didn’t appreciate before. I remember going back to school for the first time, and I was just so grateful to be in school, which is something that I never thought I would say.”
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There had been a crew of doctors working with Marshall, but it was Dr. Friedmann who had that hunch to keep looking into leukemia.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this woman is so passionate about what she does. She loves what she does.’ I’m so grateful for her, and it inspired me to just want to go after something similar that gave me that kind of fire inside me,” he says. “And I was like, okay, that’s what I want to do, but how do I save lives with music?”
Meeting His Music Idol
“And that’s where my huge influence of John Mayer came into the scene,” Marshall continues, “because when I was going through treatment, when I was sitting in the hospital, not knowing what tomorrow was going to bring or if I was going to be able to play guitar because my fingers were getting weak or my voice was getting weak and I didn’t have the air support, I would just listen to his music.”
His favorite album from Mayer is Born and Raised, “just because it has so much depth in the lyrics. Even though he didn’t go through what I went there, some of those lyrics made it seem like he knew exactly what I was talking about.”
“So, those two people are the biggest inspirations in my life, John Mayer and Dr. Friedmann,” he says proudly. “John showed me that I can save people’s lives with music if I’m raw, if I really try to get at what they’re going through, because people can connect to that. Human beings are so connected, even though sometimes we don’t like to think we are. So, that’s been my driving force ever since. Even when I was sick, I was still trying to play. I remember a Relay For Life event my junior year, I was barely able to sing and play guitar, but I still played a 30-minute set at my high school.”
Before Marshall’s 18th birthday, his nurses started talking to him about the Make-A-Wish Foundation and encouraged him to go for it. The organization helps kids fighting cancer live out one of their dreams, like becoming a police officer for a day or meeting Beyoncé.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what I want. Maybe it would be cool if I met and played with John Mayer, but that’s not going to happen.'”
Cut to 10 months later, Marshall is playing a gig at college (yes, the budding rock star still started college in the midst of cancer treatment) and after he performed a John Mayer song, the Make-A-Wish team announced, “You’re going to meet John Mayer!” with everyone holding cutouts of the singer’s face on popsicle sticks.
Marshall was floored with disbelief, as video cameras captured the moment, but also quite terrified that his music idol would just look at him as a kid with cancer and pity him. Yet, it was just the opposite.
Mayer had just started a tour with Dead & Company (which is essentially the legendary Grateful Dead band minus the late singer Jerry Garcia). The first show was in Mansfield, Mass. and Marshall was put up at the Four Seasons where Mayer was staying. A couple of hours before his show, Mayer was scheduled to set aside some time with Marshall.
“So we meet at this rendezvous point in the hotel, in one of the hotel rooms. The lady was like, ‘He’s at the door. Go open it.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, God.’ And he opened the door, and he just runs it, and he’s so energetic. He said, ‘What’s up? How’s it going?’ Saying hi to everyone. And then he kicks everyone out besides me. He’s like, ‘Yeah, you guys can all leave.’ And then we spent like an hour together, and we were talking. First it was a little small talk about the just-released ‘New Light,’ and I didn’t know what to say. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. So funny. So cool.'”
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Naturally, Mayer suggested that they play guitar. “I told him I’m a songwriter, and I showed him some of my music,” Marshall says, “and we started talking about the Born and Raised album, improvisation, and all these different things in my life.”
Marshall even showed Mayer some new music he was working on. “In fact, I was about to release an EP at that point, so I gave him the first copy of my acoustic EP on a Verbatim disc,” he says. “He’s like, ‘It does not get any more classic than a Verbatim disc CD-R.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, this is awesome.’ It was so validating, and I still watch the video whenever I need a little boost of inspiration. When I watched it back, he had genuine reactions to my music, and he genuinely was like, ‘That’s a really good lyric,’ or he’s like, ‘You know what you’re doing. You’re a genius, man.’ I really felt like we both had a really good connection that day, and it was really, really cool.”
The Treatment Phases of Leukemia
According to the American Cancer Society, the main treatment for children with ALL is chemotherapy, which is usually given in three main phases:
- Consolidation (also called intensification)
“The first phase is really short, like a month, which is lovely,” Marshall explains. “In consolidation, that’s where you do a lot of the more intense chemotherapy treatments, where you get a little weak and stuff like that. You lose your hair. The whole nine yards.”
After that, Marshall did maintenance treatment, which is once-a-month infusions, and pills in the morning and night. “And once a month, I’d go on a steroid type of treatment too, and methotrexate stuff. And that lasted for two and a half years. I have lumbar punctures, all that. All the good stuff.” A lumbar puncture (or spinal tap) can be used to analyze fluid in the spinal cord to check to see if the cancer has spread to the central nervous system.
Out of all the phases of treatment, Marshall had the worst time with the steroids.
“I hated steroids. And it just turns you into another person you didn’t want to be,” he says. “I would be snapping at people, especially in college and stuff, too, and just knowing that it’s literally driving me insane and making me stress out or anxious. That’s the most inhumane part of the treatment, you feel like you lose control of yourself. Nausea is not great, either, obviously, but you learn to live with it.”
“It affects every aspect of your life in a way. You get insecurities from it. Your body looks different because of it. I’ve grown to love my scars, but I am scarred. I have terrible stretch marks, and it looks like a tiger mulled my upper shoulder area above my chest.”
That didn’t stop Marshall’s dating life. “I definitely dated during this time, and luckily I dated two really good girls that were just really understanding of that, and they looked past that, which was really cool,” he says, acknowledging that it was hard for him to tell people right away what he was going through.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
When Marshall finished treatment, he was well on his way in college at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “When I finished treatment, it was crazy. Just a really big moment. It’s just cool to just not have that in the back of your head anymore to worry about the little things.”
He doesn’t regret his college experience, but says his health did limit some of the normal college activities because he had to stay healthy. Marshall says this was probably a “blessing in disguise,” but notes it “felt very isolating” at times.
“I put all of my eggs in music instead … just start building my rep up and writing more music and starting to gig out places, and it led me to so many different fruitful opportunities, including The Voice.” Producers found him via Instagram and reached out.
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“So, it’s really, really exciting, this whole experience. And honestly, it developed me as a person too more than I thought. It’s incredible. Nick Jonas and all the people at The Voice are just incredible.” Marshall has filmed a “Knockout” round against another contestant, but does not know the outcome if he has made it to the live shows yet.
“I had a lot of dark days, and I think any cancer patient can relate to that. Times where you’re depressed or sad, angry at the world, not really feeling hopeful.”
Marshall is not only thrilled for this opportunity for himself, but he’s also excited that this experience is rewarding for the whole family after what they have endured.
Honoring His Caregivers
“When you go through treatment, you think about other people, but you’re mainly just really trying to get through it yourself,” he says. “It takes years removed from that experience to really understand that your family went through that with you just as hard. Maybe they weren’t enduring those exact feelings and that brutality of the treatment on your body, but I’m learning more and more about how my parents and my sisters reacted to it, and how strong they are. So, it’s just a really cool moment for all of us, because it’s an ultimate moment of… the silver lining, I guess, moment of just triumph from where I used to be to now. I had a lot of dark days, and I think any cancer patient can relate to that. Times where you’re depressed or sad, angry at the world, not really feeling hopeful.”
“They were so patient with me. They were understanding when I would flip out. They were understanding when I was upset. They didn’t know necessarily what to say all the time, but they just tried to love me through it, and they really did, and that’s really important,” he says.
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Marshall says that the amount of progress he’s made as a person mentally and emotionally in the past year has been “crazy,” and credits his mom to helping him get through therapy.
“I think that was so necessary for my growth and for me to really understand and come to terms with what I actually have gone through. Everyone should go to therapy. I think therapy is a wonderful thing for everyone,” he says. “I think it’s just a great way to just assess whatever you’ve been through, whether it is cancer or some other trial in your childhood.”
Survivor Guilt and the Mental Effects of Cancer
Marshall says that one of the downsides that he had after treatment is survivor’s guilt.
“That’s a real thing, and it’s something that people don’t talk about enough,” he says. “I think you get a lot of support from your community all through your treatment, but I don’t think people get enough support after the fact when you’re trying to adjust to life afterwards, because it is so traumatizing, whether you’re a kid going through it or an adult. You have this new set of insecurities that you didn’t have before, and it’s just so important to bring light to that and awareness to that, and hopefully people can start to acknowledge that that’s a real issue too.”
His mantra throughout the whole process was “day by day.”
“Because obviously, everyone’s prognosis is different, everyone’s timetable is different, but for me, it was like, especially in the beginning, I’d wake up and look in the mirror and I’m like, ‘how am I going to do this for three and a half years?’ I was like, ‘I’m not going to be done with this until I’m a sophomore in college? I’m a junior in high school.’ That’s really hard to swallow as a 16-year-old kid.”
Marshall says to lean into your family or the people that love you, and stresses the importance of being patient with them, because they’re working through it as much as you are.
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“Everyone’s different, and I don’t want people to ever compare their specific stories to me. I think that they need to be patient and listen to their body, listen to their mind. There’s no rush to get anything done. There’s no time table on you finishing high school and you finishing this or that. Experience it and fight through it, be strong, find what you love, your passion, and the comforts that you can have,” he says.
“I don’t want anyone to ever think that they have to be this terribly optimistic person. Everyone’s different. Every process is different. Some people may not have a family like I do or a community like I do.”
Survivor Kate Bowler, a historian at Duke University, spoke with SurvivorNet on this very subject. “I hate the bright-siding, because I would never want someone who’s suffering to feel the burden of positivity.”
Taking Care of Your Emotional Health
“We know, actually from good studies, that emotional health, quality of life is associated with survival, meaning better quality of life is associated with better survival, better outcome,” Dr. Dana Chase from Arizona Oncology tells SurvivorNet. “So definitely, working on your emotional health, your physical well-being, your social environment, your emotional well-being, definitely working on those things and making them better are important and can impact your survival.”
Dr. Chase says if that’s related to what activities you do that bring you joy, “then you should try to do more of those activities,” she says. Like Andrew did (and does) with his music.
“So I sometimes will talk to a patient about making a list of the top 10 things that bring them joy and trying to do those 10 things, not every day, but trying to do those 10 things to make the most of their experiences. Dr. Chase also adds that having a good social network can be very helpful.