Billy Foster: Focused on the Healing Power of Music

Jazz musician and educator Billy Foster continues to work on his music as he battles metastatic kidney cancer.

Jazz flows through Billy Foster cool as a mountain stream.

Since he was 7 years old, Billy has known that music was his calling and purpose in life. But it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with renal cell cancer – or kidney cancer – in 1996 that he fully experienced music’s spirituality.

“I think that it gives me a connection with a higher power, for one thing,” said Billy, a pianist, teacher, and host of a jazz radio show. “I believe, and I’ve heard it from other musicians, that when you write you feel like you have a connection with a higher power.”

Since his diagnosis, Billy has written “a lot of music,” including a series of jazz vespers for religious services. As a young man living in New York, Billy used to attend jazz vespers at St. Peter’s Church, where funerals for jazz greats like Duke Ellington were held. 

“I wanted to write tunes that were specific to the service, so that is what I went about doing,” he said. “I have been able to do that two or three times so far.”

Music helps Billy keep cancer from dominating his life. His advice to newly diagnosed cancer patients is to “get a grip on your mind” and find something to occupy their time rather than “sitting around moaning and groaning.”

“I think you have to get your attitude upbeat in order to get through this,” he said.

Billy learned that lesson when he received his cancer diagnoses. After doctors removed a tumor, Billy was in “pretty good shape” for several years. Then, in 2007, a persistent cough brought him to the doctor. The news wasn’t good.

Billy’s cancer had metastasized to his lungs, liver, and brain. Gamma knife radiation therapy treated the lesions in his brain but the tumors in his lungs were scattered throughout, eliminating any possibility of surgery.

“I was told at that point that if we didn’t get a grip on this somehow, then in a couple of years I wouldn’t be around,” he said. 

The first drug therapy failed to slow Billy’s cancer, so his doctor proposed that he enter a clinical trial. As an African-American, Billy knew about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Henrietta Lacks, and why minorities still don’t trust clinical trials. Nevertheless, he enrolled.  

“I’m obviously a big fan of clinical trials because if I had not entered, then I would not be here,” he said.

Billy is not just a fan but something of a clinical trial evangelist, banging the drum to get more minorities to participate. To that end, he plays interviews with doctors on his radio shows and even uses breaks between songs during gigs to talk about his “journey with cancer.”

Billy has also attended two conferences of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), where he met and spoke to several researchers. Billy says knowing how hard scientists are working to cure cancer lifts his spirits and fills him with the hope that he has years of smooth, cool jazz ahead.

“Real hope is being able to play until I’m 100 and live a normal life,” he said.

“Hopefully, through music I can help the people that I come in contact with and when they come to see me, I hope they leave feeling better than when they came in.”