Hitting the right note after a cancer diagnosis

A Colorado musician finds hope through his music after being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer.
Feb. 22, 2023
Ray Smith, who battled advanced prostate cancer, and his wife and bandmate, Cari Minor. The duo's band is Strangebyrds. Photo courtesy Ray Smith.
Ray Smith, who battled advanced prostate cancer, and his wife and bandmate, Cari Minor. The duo’s band is Strangebyrds. Photo courtesy Ray Smith.

Despite a lifetime on stage as a musician, Ray Smith never had an audience quite like the one he performed for in January.

Maybe because it was in a hospital – UCHealth Longs Peak Medical Center in Longmont – a place he was intimately familiar with, having just completed a grueling 20-day radiation regimen for advanced prostate cancer there.

So when he hit the final note of the song “Only One Today” off the latest album, “Highway Islands,” which he recorded with his wife and bandmate, Cari Minor, the words were particularly relevant. The duo, whose band is the Strangebyrds, sang for the medical care team that helped save his life.

“I felt really emotional that day,” said the 69-year-old Rollinsville resident. “I thought, ‘Man, I hope I can sing this.’ I had to compartmentalize my feelings to get through it. I realized though, this shouldn’t be a sad moment – this is good.’’

Wrapping up the radiation treatments came nine months after the devastating news in spring 2022 that he had cancer, discovered during a routine physical examination. He had no symptoms or inkling anything might be wrong; he was fit and feeling healthy. He’d only consented to getting a physical after prodding from Cari.

“He hadn’t had a physical since he was 18,” she said. “I wanted him to get some bloodwork done, if only to get a baseline for various things. We never thought … cancer.”

The shock of a diagnosis, but it was on with the show

Part of the routine medical work-up included a PSA test, a blood test for males that screens for prostate cancer. For someone Ray’s age, a normal result would be a PSA level of 4 or lower.

Ray’s was 53.6.

A second PSA test confirmed the couple’s worst fears. While prostate cancer is a common cancer – and a curable one when caught early – his high PSA level gave them both grave concern.

Still, they had business commitments: booked shows, venues on the calendar and long-planned gigs they were reluctant to scratch.

“The work, our work, is a passion for us, it’s not a 9-to-5 thing,” he said. “It takes a lot to make these shows happen, and we didn’t feel right canceling them. We didn’t want to let our fans and everyone else down.”

Music is an integral part of the love language that Ray and Cari give to their audiences and each other. It’s what brought them together and part of the tie that binds them as tight as the twin harmonies they create on the five studio albums they crafted during their 23 years together, four of them as a married couple. They even named their band after their favorite bird – ravens, who mate for life.

A chance meeting at a music festival

He was born in Connecticut, she in Wisconsin, and both took circuitous routes that eventually landed them in Colorado. She was a ski bum who worked at Vail and then enrolled at the University of Colorado-Boulder, a poet and songwriter who revered Patti Smith and Roseanne Cash. He was an avid skier and bike racer, an aficionado of multiple instruments, involved in myriad aspects of the music industry for many decades both on and off stage, and a guitar player since age 8.

With several career iterations that had taken them from coast to coast, they both found themselves at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons in 1999. Cari was a finalist in its songwriting competition that year (an accolade she would claim six more times) while Ray was singing there (he would earn that laurel last year.)

Each was searching for more meaning in their lives, both personally and professionally, and the chance meeting laid the groundwork for a collaborative fusion of their talent and a unique sound they perfected over the years that they like to call “blue-collar folk.”

The soulful ballads they write contain elements of folk, bluegrass, country and rock, as they engineer their own tracks and play all the instruments: Ray on guitar, keyboard, bass and drums; Cari on guitar, percussion, harmonica and an Irish bouzouki, which has long neck similar to a lute and the same pitch as a guitar, but with more bass.

“Whatever music happens to come our way, we embrace,” he said. “We just love to do the art of music.”

Over the years and with a blended family, as Cari had three sons from a previous marriage, they became familiar faces in musical venues around the state and country. They built a recording studio in their home, and Ray has even written several original film compositions, including the score for The Muscle Shoals Film Documentary and for the 2021 film, The Alpinist. Together they wrote the original song, “The World Needs Mercy,” for the short documentary Common Thread, which has been lauded at film festivals in California, Paris and London.

And then came the cancer diagnosis.

The right environment to treat advanced prostate cancer

After a busy summer, the couple put together a plan: Beginning in September, they would make the trip from their mountain home to UCHealth Anschutz every three months for the next year and a half, where Ray would receive hormone therapy, which entails injections that block testosterone production to help stop the spread of the cancer.

But Ray also would need 20 continual radiation sessions, and they were dreading the long drive from the mountains to metro Denver. They were relieved to learn that he could receive oncology services closer to their home at UCHealth Longs Peak in Longmont, which opened a comprehensive cancer care program in May 2022.

The couple have high praise for the facility and its staff, whom they grew to know over many weeks. Cari would even bring homemade cookies to Ray’s care team as he endured the month of radiation treatments. They said they loved the personal attention and nurturing they were shown.

“We appreciated everyone there and that they helped create a special place for us,” she said.

Jonathan Salazar, Longs Peak director of oncology services, said the hospital offers patients diagnostics, surgical oncology, medical oncology, radiation oncology and supportive services.

He is pleased that partnerships with Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, University of Colorado School of Medicine and UCHealth bring some of the most advanced treatment technology and evidence-based care to the Longmont community.

Dr. Rebekah Maymani, medical director of radiation oncology at Longs Peak, said staff worked closely with their peers on the Anschutz Medical Campus to coordinate Ray’s care. Before radiation commenced, gold markers called fiducials were placed in Ray’s prostate to help his healthcare team line up the radiation beams, target the tumor and avoid healthy tissue.

Dr. Rebekah Maymani
Dr. Rebekah Maymani

“He did quite well,” she said. “Historically, prostate radiation took as long as nine weeks, but with modern techniques, many patients can be offered shorter courses with preserved or even improved outcomes.”

Since his radiation ended in January, Ray has received the second hormone injection – the third one will come in April – and will continue every three months for the next year and a half.  The hormone therapy keeps his PSA level low, at about 1.5 now, by killing testosterone production which had been fueling the tumor.

The hormone treatment has pushed him into something he sees as his own “menopause,” complete with hot flashes and related symptoms. He’s also convinced it has helped him get in touch with feelings he has not experienced before, which is affecting his songwriting – in a new way.

“Things seem to be coming from a different place because I am in a different place,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve written a depressing song since this started – we’ve tried to be positive.”

Spreading awareness about prostate cancer

He and Cari are excited to be working on a new album scheduled to come out this fall, tentatively titled “Shrieking Violets,” that has more of a rock vibe to it. The songwriting has helped him to creatively vent and perhaps grieve as he navigates his life as a cancer survivor.

He credits Cari for her support, patience and nurturing, along with the Longs Peak care team, including radiation therapists, nurses, oncologists and a social worker they meet with weekly to help process their new world.

They talk about music being a strong and common thread through the tapestry of their lives: as a force of change to motivate, move and make the world a better place. Cari even wrote a new song, “The Hand of Change,” about the “tattoos” on Ray’s hips (two remaining permanent ink dots that had helped radiation therapists align the treatments). She sings part of it: “…The tattoos on your body are not pretty…but they guide the light to save the love of my life.”

They are resolved to stay focused on the future and moving forward: more scheduled concerts, new songs, another album, and gigs planned as far away as Ireland and Copenhagen. And they are planning an October concert at Boulder’s eTown Hall, with a portion of the sales going toward prostate cancer research.

In the meantime, they hike, walk, ski, travel and play with their dog, content to wake up each day and make new music.

As a reminder of the support they have received, their bedroom door is covered with letters from those who have been moved by Ray’s story and public testimony on the importance of PSA screening that he speaks about during their concerts.

“That’s motiving in and of itself,” he said. “Having a passion is a bridge to a better place.”

He has been open with his audience about his cancer and its consequences. Statistics show one in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime, and he urges men to stay on top of their healthcare. It saddens him that he personally knows nine men currently fighting prostate cancer, and he feels lucky that his was caught in what he hopes was the nick of time.

“We’re on the other side of the radiation now, but there’s still a big question mark until I am done with the hormone therapy in another year and half. After that, I’ll have to see where my PSA is, and I hope, get back to being me.”

But for now, living each day is enough, like their song “Only One Today,” that he closed out his radiation treatment. In that moment, it became a song of appreciation for the hospital staff and for his health. The genesis for the lyrics came to Ray one morning when he was waiting for Cari as they were running out the door on some errands: “I said, ‘We only have one today — let’s go.’ “

Like many phrases that strike her fancy, she wrote it down, and a song was born.

“I absolutely believe that songs come to us out of the ether,” she said. “We don’t know why and then afterward, we’re like, oh right, yes.”

You can only be lucky as the day is long
Living your life singing your song
Kicking the tires and you’re on your way
Always more tomorrow’s Only One Today

 Go here for more info on Ray and Cari, their music and Strangebyrds

About the author

Mary Gay Broderick is a Denver-based freelance writer with more than 25 years experience in journalism, marketing, public relations and communications. She enjoys telling compelling stories about healthcare, especially the dedicated UCHealth professionals and the people whose lives they transform. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and traveling, along with baking (mostly) successful desserts for her husband and three daughters.