“GYN cancers are not things people talk about in our culture, and they’re woefully underfunded and misunderstood,” said John Boggess, who sings and plays guitar and keyboard in the band when he’s not working at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “We really believe that we’re starting a conversation. Because there are worse things than getting cancer, and that’s feeling isolated and without help and understanding.”
The concert was part of the annual conference of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance (OCNA), an advocacy group. Most members of the audience wore teal-colored clothing and Mardi Gras beads in support of the cause (similar to how the breast cancer cause has embraced pink).
“We see them in a professional setting, and to see them up there doing this for us, it’s amazing,” said Susan Leighton of Huntsville, Ala., a 14-year survivor of ovarian cancer.
Annamarie DeCarlo, 55, of Annapolis, a 10-year survivor of ovarian cancer, wore a glow-in-the-dark necklace and danced with her friends during the concert.
“It just blows my mind that they’re doing this,” DeCarlo said. “See, they’re rock stars to us already, because they’re saving women’s lives all the time.”
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest of all gynecologic cancers, with a 46 percent survival rate after five years, compared with 72 percent for cervical cancer and 84 percent for uterine cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Ovarian cancer is often difficult to diagnose early because its symptoms — such as bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain and difficulty eating or feeling full quickly — are often subtle and associated with other conditions. There is no reliable and easy-to-administer early detection test for ovarian cancer comparable to the Pap test for cervical cancer.
The doctors don’t sing just about their day jobs. Some of the songs off their first full-length album, “Six Degrees,” are about hope and survival, such as “Celestial Visions” (“We are more alive today/ than we may be tomorrow/ let fear give way to strength/ let hope conquer every sorrow”), but others are about relationships and partying.
The band came together at a 2008 meeting of the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists in Tampa. After rehearsing for only an hour and a half, they played cover songs — by the Beatles, Van Halen, the Rolling Stones — as a novelty act to entertain conference attendees.
The six performers hail from all over the country: Portland, Ore., Anchorage, Alaska; New York; New Orleans; two from North Carolina. The band members are in their 40s and 50s; all are men except for lead singer Joanie Hope. They left their lab coats far behind, wearing all black and heavy silver jewelry for the concert.
After an ecstatic reception from the other doctors at the conference, they started writing songs with the aim of becoming a mainstream rock band. “Six Degrees” came out in June; the title references the six band members and also how everyone is connected to cancer. Proceeds from the album go to Marjie’s Fund, a nonprofit named for a woman who died of uterine cancer. N.E.D. is scheduled to play at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh on Oct. 1.
Having such far-flung bandmates comes with challenges, such as limited in-person rehearsal time and e-mail in-boxes stuffed with audio tracks, but N.E.D. is uniquely equipped for the challenge, Boggess said.
“As surgeons, we’re just really used to doing what it takes to get things accomplished, and we have high expectations for ourselves,” he said. “We don’t walk into things thinking we can’t do it.”
The organizers of the OCNA conference were thrilled to bring N.E.D. to Washington, even though “it took about 8 million e-mails to get them here,” said board member Jenny Allen.
“We’re very, very, very lucky to have them,” Allen said as she introduced the band before the concert. “The ovarian cancer entertainment industry is not a large one.”