“Cancer Is My Engine” is the first music video by Seattle band Iraqis in Pajamas. It tells the singer’s story of healing from cancer through music, and it features BIPOC women and men in the band, cast, and crew. In the music video, Loolwa Khazzoom (singer, songwriter, bass player), plays herself; Sean Sebastian (guitarist) plays the insurance agent, and Robbie Morsehead (drummer) plays the doctor. The song was written by Khazzoom; the music video storyboard was co-created by Khazzoom, Sebastian, and Morsehead; and the music video was filmed, directed, and produced by Sebastian, was additionally filmed by Jonah and Joey Chriswell, and was edited and colored by Gabe Shelton-Jenck. Below are details including the back story, storyboard, song lyrics, and links for more information.
Amidst the global pandemic, volunteer cast and crew drove in from across Washington state, donning masks and practicing social distancing, to film against the backdrop of the stunning Olympic Peninsula forest – for Iraqis in Pajamas’ music video, “Cancer Is My Engine.” The video tells the story of front woman Loolwa Khazzoom’s choice to approach a 2010 thyroid cancer diagnosis as an opportunity for healing and transforming her life on every level. Through measures such as radically altering her diet, Khazzoom cold-stopped the growth of the nodules, which remained stable for five years. Ultimately, her healing journey led her back to her lost love of music and to Washington state, where she launched Iraqis in Pajamas – combining original alternative rock with the Iraqi Jewish prayers of her indigenous Middle Eastern heritage. Months after her band launch, the thyroid nodules began shrinking.
Khazzoom rejected the conventional thyroidectomy treatment for thyroid cancer, despite extreme pressure – including a doctor telling her that she would die if she did not get surgery, and medical insurance refusing to cover anything but conventional treatment. The cancer diagnosis additionally came on the heels of a debilitating auditory injury that had unraveled Khazzoom’s life and left her on the verge of homelessness, amplifying the pressure she faced while making her decision.
Through magical realism and metaphor, the music video reveals how, by listening to her inner voice, Khazzoom self-healed through her actual voice, by singing – the ability of which ironically may have been destroyed by a thyroidectomy, given the proximity of the thyroid gland and vocal chords, which either are pressed up against each other or intertwined, depending on someone’s body. The music video also tells the story of how, amidst her own journey healing from cancer, Khazzoom was the devoted caregiver for her mother, EJ, who had a traumatic brain injury. Against the backdrop of scant, if any, support from family or community, and the risk, danger, and terror facing mother and daughter as a result, each in her own way fiercely supported the other – in a magical adventure of healing, transformation, and defiance of conventional beliefs about what is possible.
The video begins with the image of a candle, against the backdrop of a forest, followed by Khazzoom standing at the edge of a cliff – singing the opening line of the song, “Cancer is my engine.” Suddenly Khazzoom is transported to the forest, where she is searching in the dark with the light of the candle – symbolizing her quest for healing, amidst the dangers and turmoil of her life at the time of the diagnosis. She comes across a bear, representing Khazzoom’s mother, and picks it up, then continues on her quest. An insurance agent and doctor appear and begin chasing Khazzoom through the forest. As she runs away from them, carrying the bear, she comes to a fork in the road – with the doctor on one side and the insurance agent on the other, coming toward her. She stops, looks in each direction, then runs forward, through the part of the forest that has no path, but is heading toward the light. She keeps running until she comes to a cliff and jumps off it. This sequence symbolizes Khazzoom’s bold decision to follow her intuition and forge her own path – in doing so, taking a leap of faith.
Khazzoom lands in the middle of a drumming circle in the forest, and starts dancing wildly. A few scenes later, she is drumming in the middle of the circle, and everyone else is dancing around her. Both circles represent the pivotal importance of music, dance, and nature in Khazzoom’s healing, and how these forms of medicine appeared to her only after she listened to her heart and willingly hurled herself into the unknown. The video ends with Khazzoom calmly walking down the forest path with the bear, then standing on the edge of the cliff and blissfully singing the last words of the song, exalting the power of the Divine. This closing sequence represents the peace and joy that Khazzoom cultivated in her life, through heeding the calling of her soul, and it additionally represents the deep and sacred connection that Khazzoom developed with her mother, through a willingness to do “whatever it takes.”
Directed by Sean Sebastian (USA)