The songs are diverse. A jazzy track gives way to folksy sweetness then takes a hard turn into a driving techno beat. The lyrics touch on familiar themes like love and fear.
But Iris Banks’ impressive debut album is more than a musical repository of hopes and dreams. Iris is a breast cancer survivor who’s ridden the roller coaster of diagnosis and treatment and turned her experience into a collection of beautiful – and inspirational – songs.
A native of Flint, Michigan, Iris attended college in Mississippi and interned in Atlanta where she eventually established roots, launching a career as a clinical social worker.
Today she works in the Homeless Veterans Program at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, helping former soldiers find housing, health care and hope. At home in Cobb County it’s all about her guys – husband Dwight Banks Sr. and nine-year-old son, Dwight Jr.
“In 2006 I discovered a lump in my right breast,” Iris recalls. “My aunts and grandmother had breast cancer so we watched it closely.” Nothing showed up on a mammogram and Iris was advised to follow up in about a year.
But before the year was out she discovered another lump. Iris’s primary doctor sent her to a breast specialist who diagnosed two cancerous growths and recommended she see oncologist Dr. Michael Andrews, Chief Cancer Officer for the WellStar Cancer Network.
Check out some of Iris's music by clicking any of the MP3s below.
Things moved quickly, with plans for a mastectomy and reconstruction. Iris’s medical team grew to include surgeon Dr. Brenda Simpson and plastic surgeon Dr. Diane Alexander. Dr. Andrews oversaw her post-surgery care, including chemotherapy at Wellstar Cobb Hospital.
“Of course I want to live!”
Iris, a natural musician, had been offered an opportunity to record an album as a teen. But her parents, Pastor James and Dorothy Waldon, decided that entering the music business at a young age was not the best choice for their daughter.
Instead, she continued to sing in church and, as she got older, Iris began to write her own songs. “At the time of my diagnosis I had been writing country music, which I love because it tells a story,” she says.
But writing had to take a back seat as Iris focused on getting well. During her recovery she found herself looking for music that would answer her questions and quiet her fears. But she found little.
“One day my husband was taking care of me – it was a couple of days after a round of chemotherapy, the time when you feel the worst.” Iris was down and Dwight knew just how to bring her up.
“He asked me if I wanted to live. I was sort of irritated and I looked at him and said, ‘What do you mean?! Of course I want to live!’ It was a very emotional moment.”
The music inside
It was a turning point for Iris and before the day was over she had written When You, the first of the songs that would become the album BRCA 37 Project.
The title is for the BRCA (breast cancer) gene, for which she tested positive, and for Iris’s age at the time of diagnosis.
When You is a sweet ballad in which Iris thanks Dwight for his loving care.
When you look at me
I wish that I could see all that you see
I wish I had the faith you have in me
I can be all I can be
When you look at me
Hey at me… hey at me.
“At the time I didn’t have any hair,” she recalls. “ I was self-conscious. I was full of doubts – I was even questioning my faith. But I felt God challenging me to keep writing.”
Iris responded, enlisting her sister Ilynnette Waldon Ross, also a talented musician. The women wrote and performed the songs and got them produced with the help of friends in the music business.
Over a period of three years, they would create a professionally mastered album of 14 original tracks. During most of that time, Iris kept details about the project relatively quiet.
“Then one day I handed the master CD to Dwight and told him to pop it into the CD player. He wept as he listened. He couldn’t believe we had pulled it off.”
Iris also shared news about the album with Dr. Andrews during her next visit. At first he thought she was kidding but he was able to download the first single, Moving On, and listen right in the office.
Dr. Andrews was delighted, but not really surprised. “Iris is a sweet person with a pragmatic way of doing what needs to be done and not spending time worrying about things,” he says.
The ability to express oneself through music or in other creative endeavors can be highly valuable for patients, Dr. Andrews adds. In Iris’s case the effort will also help others find support and solace, which was her intent.
The album is currently available on iTunes and on Iris’s website, BRCA37.com. The songs are soulful, moving and joyous. Survivor is a beautiful tune written and performed by Iris and Ilynnette. The lyrics of the chorus really say it all.
A survivor, a survivor, a survivor
Lives inside her.
A survivor, a survivor,
You can’t put out her fire.