This Is How Breast Cancer Helped Me Find My Voice Again

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I am a 14 year breast cancer survivor. Cancer sucks. It sucks out your energy. It sucks away your passions. It just plain old sucks. Cancer also creates. My experience taught me to re-create my existence as I knew it, and at times, that sucked.

I still have vivid memories of having a meltdown once I processed the news.

My very first mammogram at the prescribed age of 40 came up positive. Ok, that is not a very uplifting use of the word “positive.” I still have vivid memories of having a meltdown once I processed the news. Whenever I heard the word “cancer” I always associated it with a death sentence. My daughter was in the 7th grade and I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her. Thankfully, the very first thing my oncologist said to me was “we don’t die from cancer, we live with cancer.” And honey, I was ready to live!

I researched and interviewed several oncologists and surgeons and settled on the St. Barnabas team of Dr. Richard Michaelson (oncologist), Dr. Elissa J. Santoro (breast surgeon) and for reconstruction, Dr. Scott Spiro because he is an artist. If I was going to have a body of stitches and scars, they had better look like a work of art! I also opted not to have anything foreign put in my body and instead, used the muscles and fat from other areas for my TRAM (Transverse Rectus Abdominus Musculocutaneous Flap) reconstruction. Six hours of surgery later, I was patched together, bent over at a 45 degree angle from the area removed from my abdomen and the external oblique muscle wrapped up and around to create a new breast. It would be another several weeks before I could stand up straight.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the loss of my dignity, my femininity and my voice.

Post surgery I had to prepare for 6 months of chemo. What I wasn’t prepared for was the loss of my dignity, my femininity and my voice. I didn’t want any other woman to go through what I was going through so I volunteered to participate in a Phase 4 study of a new chemo drug.  Gradually, the hair fell out, and the voice fell away. My finger nails and toe nails fell off so I wrapped them in bandaids because it hurt to touch anything or put shoes on. My energy was zapped. I needed something artistic to feed my soul and I couldn’t sing or play the piano - my two islands of art. My art and teaching mentor, Phillis Bolton, gave me some much needed art therapy to stay grounded and sane. Phyllis and Sandy Bolton were great benefactors of the arts.

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You get the idea. It was really no fun at all, but I had to go through it because I had no choice. For a few years, I didn’t bother to sing because I assumed chemo had raped my vocal cords. I was playing some piano, but all my passion and inspiration for music was stripped away. I just didn’t see the point. Then, my 9 year old neighbor, Haley Pilkington, asked for piano lessons. How could I turn her down?

I graduated to a handful of young students who inspired me to start writing again in turn, teach them songwriting skills.

Haley eventually asked if I could teach her to sing. Honestly, I was scared. I hadn’t faced the loss of my voice and assumed I just couldn’t sing anymore. Let me clarify: I could sing, but didn’t have the range or endurance I used to have. I couldn’t stand listening to myself. It was time to walk through my fears once again.

Researching vocal coaches and methods is time consuming. BC (before cancer) I studied with 3 major vocal coaches but now I was at square one again and needed to find someone who would not only help to repair my voice, but also teach me how to teach others. I would find audio or video samples of teachers online and test out their methods. On one of these occasions I chanced upon someone who looked like a slacker and his approach to teaching seemed very affected: Brett Manning. Not being one to close the door too soon, I tried out his exercises for one a while. Wouldn’t you know it, not only did I gain back what I lost in my voice, but I felt stronger every day. Although I may not agree with everything he says (and I’m sure he questions some things I do!), I am thankful to Brett for leading me out of a bummer of a place. I spent over a year traveling back and forth to Nashville to study and certify with Brett. Since then, I have expanded my practice and now converse with fellow vocal coaches all around the world.

What I find mildly humorous now is that I wouldn’t trade my cancer experience. It has opened my heart and mind up to places I never knew existed. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I’m glad I’m here to tell my story. 

My passion and my desire now is to help you. Singing is more than just the voice. It is the whole artist. Whatever you are facing, whatever you are fearing, I’ll walk with you and help you get to the other side.

About the Author:

Deborah "Zuke" Smith is an experienced singer and vocal coach based in New Jersey with an impressive history in music. She produced original jingles for various businesses and worked as a music copyist while continuing to perform as a freelance singer.In the past several years, she became certified as a vocal coach with Brett Manning (of Singing Success).  

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