Music: Mission Survivable

Breast cancer survivors and their supporters rally together with music

Jan 19, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Michael Kearns

Cancer survivor and Wussy drummer Dawn Burman plays the One More Girl on a Stage concert Saturday

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Dawn Burman has a full plate. When she's not playing drums for two bands — local Indie darlings Wussy and sassy newcomers the Tammy Whynots — she's immersed in a teaching career, helping ex-"problem" kids get educated. Split a bottle of wine with her and she'll share all sorts of tips — everything from getting your band mentioned in Rolling Stone to keeping a 17-year-old's interest for more than 20 minutes.

Those are just a few of the things that she does when she's not busy beating breast cancer.

"You learn very quickly what is yours versus what belongs to someone else," she says of breaking the news of her diagnosis to friends and family in the summer of 2005. "People's reactions are based on their own fears and not necessarily reflective of how they actually feel."

She recalls briefly, considerately, the only friendship that fell by the wayside during her recovery. "You just have to let them work through it however they need to."

That kind of selflessness is characteristic of Burman, who was raised in a small Illinois town that she describes as having "that get each other's back' mentality." Burman says she knew immediately that cancer was not going to beat her.

"I never thought for a second that I might die," she says. But that's not to say it didn't still scare the hell out of her. "Most drummers change their drumheads just a few times a year," she remembers, "I was beating mine so hard that I had to change them every other show."

Because of her age — Burman was only 31 when she was diagnosed — her counterattack was met with a host of uncertainties, not the least of which was the havoc that cancer treatment can wreak on a woman's reproductive forecast. Burman consulted countless doctors and counselors, some of whom were helpful, while others offered frustrating negligence or blatantly incorrect information. "I just remember on the morning of my surgery thinking, I really hate this,' " she recalls.

Despite her anger, Burman took comfort in the solidarity of Cincinnati's music community as she made the unthinkable decision to undergo a double mastectomy.

"My bandmates and friends were stunned," she says, "but they were right there, in the hospital, at my house; they were doing benefit shows, bringing food."

An important turning point in Burman's recovery came when a reliable physician referred her to Pink Ribbon Girls (, a local organization with a growing national reach that offers information and an impressive spectrum of support to women who are young breast cancer survivors. In addition to creating an extensive online bank of personal testimony, advice and interactivity, PRG also participates in support groups and survivor conferences all over the Tristate.

On Saturday, PRG will be the recipients of funds raised by the Rivertown Music Club's "One More Girl on a Stage" benefit at the Southgate House. The concert will feature some of Cincinnati's most recognized female artists, including Kinsey Rose, Tupelo Honey, Liz Bowater, Ma Crow and The Mother Pluckers, Lauren Houston, Kelly Thomas, The Jellyhearts, Wussy, Kristen Key Band, My Wife The Tiger and Lines and Spaces.

Kelly Thomas, founder of the Rivertown Music Club and herself a local musician, is no stranger to the healing powers of a strong music community. She was compelled to create the One More Girl series after forming deep friendships with area female musicians, including Burman.

"I started to really get to know Dawn when she was first diagnosed," she says. "I went to her bra-burning party before her surgery — I was just incredibly moved by how she was facing what she was about to deal with. And then suddenly it was everywhere I looked. It was like my aunt has it' or my sister was diagnosed.' ... Then it became something very real for me."

Unfortunately, the disease took an even more personal role in Thomas' life when her mother developed a malignant breast lump in the spring of 2007. "It really hit home that this is something that's all around us," Thomas says.

One More Girl, as Thomas explains, donates proceeds from its shows to a variety of female-centered organizations beyond breast cancer research, but she admits that it is the one cause that women feel most connected to.

"Something about this disease gets people motivated," she says. "It touches so much of a person's identity."

Burman has been cancer-free since her mastectomy. She continues to meet with an oncologist every six months for check-ups and her outlook is inspiring.

"This experience will always be something that I wish had never happened," says Burman. "But I've gotten some amazing gifts along the way. It made me fearless. I went from wondering all the time how my life would be someday to realizing that you don't always get a someday.' "

In addition to a renewed appreciation for life, Burman developed an adamant philosophy about the power of self-awareness.

"This is probably the most important point," she advises. "Because I detected the cancer early and found a doctor who took me seriously, the cancer was removed at an early stage before it could spread. It is not exaggerating to say that this saved my life. Take care of your health. Know and respect your body. If you are sure something is wrong, find a doctor who will listen and help."

The ONE MORE GIRL ON A STAGE benefit show for the Pink Ribbon Girls is Saturday at the Southgate House. Check out all the acts and find nearby bars and restaurants here.