Singing Again After Cancer

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Two years ago, my little sister developed cancer which not only nearly ended her singing career, it also nearly ended her life. Here is her inspirational story:

Singing Again After Cancer

by Susan Moisan

My brother Roger will tell you, as would any member of our family, that I was practically born singing. While I was still young enough not to be inhibited I would sing for anyone who would listen. I was convinced that one day I would be either Maria Callas or Julie Andrews and demonstrated this regularly in a reedy seven year old’s trill.

As I grew older and my voice and tastes changed, my ambitions shifted towards Ella Fitzgerald or Judy Garland. Then I hit my mid-teens and it all went south. I wasn’t good at being a teenager. Shy and introverted, I refused to sing where anyone could hear me. I stopped playing the piano because I was too embarrassed.

What saved me was acting. I discovered levels of fulfilment I never thought possible when I appeared on stage for the first time aged 22. So long as I could pretend to be someone else, I knew no fear. Singing might have been my first love but an actress was who I was.

Were it not for drama school, I might never have sung again. My voice had rusted and seized up in the intervening years but some excellent training taught me to use my muscles, ground and place my voice correctly, develop tone and a range of expression I never knew I had. I found power from nowhere.

I never ever thought of myself as a singer. I was nowhere near the league of most professionals and my tone and style was unfashionable. I was an actress who sang. But during my acting career I sang many times on stage and in cabarets and I loved it. I found a wonderful accompanist who became my partner and we were a fantastic team. I was not Judy, or Ella, or Maria or Julie. I was me.

In November 2014, when I was 34, I had my West End debut in a charity production at the Palace Theatre. During rehearsals I fell ill with a hacking cough and fever. My training kicked in and I got through the production but two months later I was hospitalised and diagnosed with aggressive Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

The mass of cancerous cells had clustered to the size of two grapefruits around the lymph nodes in my chest; fluid had spread across my lungs and was very slowly drowning me and my heart was being crushed. The fluid was drained, many tests and biopsies were done and I started on four months of chemotherapy. I ballooned in weight and lost all of my hair. The chemo didn’t get it all so I began eighteen rounds of radiotherapy to my entire torso (or mediastinum as the docs call it).

The radiotherapy burnt my lungs and my oesophagus. I was in agony for weeks and unable to eat or drink properly. Scar tissue on my lungs caused breathing problems and another hacking cough. I caught a few more viruses as well.

A year to the day from my diagnosis saw me in remission but I was left a shell of who I was. Bald, overweight and weak and I had not sung a note through my whole illness. I hadn’t dared risk it.

In addition, my partner and accompanist had left me during my illness; he who had encouraged me to sing, stretched me and taught me, given me confidence to perform and played by my side while I did. When I sang with him I felt I had a safety net. Without him, I felt hopeless: rejected, unattractive and a failure. The joy I found in music had gone.

When your life changes immeasurably so do your priorities. My perspective on life had shifted dramatically along with my standards, goals – even parts of my personality. Nothing could be, or ever would be, the same.

The biggest change for me was in acting. Acting in itself was still a pleasure but the world of the actor was not a place I wanted to be anymore. My levels of tolerance could not deal with the unpredictability, the pushing and shoving, the waiting and hoping, the endless rejection and constant exploitation. To succeed as an actor you have to be hungry for it. It must be your world and your driving force. Now that I had been through hell, that all seemed so unimportant. I didn’t want to be that person.

I started to focus on what would make me happy, what would bring me back to myself again. Slowly and quietly at home, I started singing.

My muscles were weak, my breathing shallow and my control appalling but the bare bones of a voice could be heard. I visited a singing teacher and explained my situation. She encouraged me to try exercises to strengthen my diaphragm and improve my lung capacity. Conscious of my neighbours and the terrible sounds I might make I regularly visited a local rehearsal studio and spent an hour or two at weekends with my earphones in running through exercises, warm ups and songs from my old repertoire trying to drown out the indie bands in the other poorly soundproofed rooms.

What I discovered was that despite the damage my lungs had taken, they still worked. That with practice and patience, they could be brought back to strength: that with practice and patience I could be brought back to strength. I remembered the sheer physical pleasure of singing that I had known as a child. The feel of the sound escaping through my throat, knowing that the sound I made was good; the fun of it, the happy chemicals that hit you through something as simple as singing along to favourite song.

I learnt that I didn’t need the man that I thought had given me all my confidence – the man that I had loved. Singing was my first love, and singing always would be.

I have been in remission now for eighteen months and I have my voice back. I have not yet performed in public but that time will come. I feel no need at all to rush. I don’t sing to become a singer – I sing because it makes me happy and life is too short not to be happy.

Recently I made some new recordings and combined them with pre-cancer ones on my YouTube playlist. I can hear the differences but the voice is the same.

I was unbelievably lucky, not just to have survived and to have overcome, but to have survived intact. I thought I had lost my voice forever, if I had I don’t know what I would have done.

And now, I’m not who I was before: I am better.

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