By John E. Ready
“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” – George Eliot
Growing up in the Sixties, I could croon, not well, but I still gave it my best. My aspirations consisted of singing along to the Beatles, Smokey Robinson and the Temptations, mostly in private. No need to scare people. I never dreamed that one day I would be known as one of the best singers in the world without vocal cords.
My early life was typical. I finished school, got a job, got married and had children. Life was simple. Then, in the fall of 1996, my uneventful life was turned upside down. A diagnosis of squamous cell cancer involving the larynx and esophagus would change my destiny and transform my ordinary life into an extraordinary journey.
My surgeon and I discussed Plan A. Everyone loves Plan A. That’s the good plan. Plan A consisted of surgery to remove the tumor, maybe shave the vocal cords, but keep my larynx. Plan A would result in a normal existence. Plan B, on the other hard, was something called a total laryngectomy: a surgical procedure that involved the complete removal of my voice box (larynx). Plan B involved having a permanent hole or “stoma” in my neck. Plan B involved a physical transformation, one that would take my voice and my identity.
As life would have it, my path took me down Plan B. Surgery was a success and after 36 radiation treatments, my recovery and transformation began. I was 41, with four children, two still in diapers. I had to get back to work to support my family. The process was slow and painful. I had to learn to speak again for the second time. The thought of raising four kids without a voice was not an option. I would speak again. I would be heard.
A fistula was created between the stoma in my neck and my esophagus. A prosthesis was placed to shunt the air from my neck into my mouth. At first, it was just a whisper. After endless hours of practice, the whisper turned into a grunt, the grunt turned into connected speech and the connected speech eventually turned into song. Adversity was replaced by opportunity. My new voice was not the same, but it was my own. I could communicate at work. I could read to my children at bedtime. I could speak with my wife. I was back.
Fast forward to February 2012 – my first Sin City Laryngology Conference. It was there that I witnessed my first laryngeal karaoke contest. The singers were passionate and talented. They also had something that I would never again possess: vocal cords, those magical oscillators that transform the air in our lungs into celestial harmony. A friend and colleague suggested that I participate in the contest the following year. “You’ll bring the house down!” he said. I dismissed his suggestion without a second thought. Laryngectomees don’t sing. We are vocal cripples. I should be content with simple communication.
Then I thought, “heck no.” I did not come this far to settle for simple communication. I did not survive terminal cancer to accept complacency. I deserved more. The Laryngectomee community deserved more. After 23 years of surviving, it was time to thrive. It was time to give the voiceless a voice. It was time to sing for the mute.
It took seven years to build enough courage and on February 25, 2019, I agreed to sing in the laryngeal karaoke contest at the Sin City Laryngology Conference. I chose “Mack the Knife” as my song. Singing without vocal cords is no easy task. The effort required to sing without cords is akin to racing in the Indy 500 on a bicycle. One slip up, one string of mucus obstructing my prosthesis, one unlucky break would be enough to completely derail my performance. To me, this simple, friendly competition was a coming-out party for the Laryngectomee community that I represent. If I could win a singing competition without vocal cords, I could prove to all cancer survivors that anything is possible. Failure was not an option.
I walked up to the front of the room, got ready and grabbed the mic. The music started and I gave it my best shot. The lyrics flowed, “Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear, and it shows them pearly white.” I worried that I couldn’t make it through the three minute song. The effort required to vibrate muscles that are not supposed to vibrate and do it in tune seemed insurmountable. I sang like my life depended on it. I crooned with the repressed vocal energy of a generation of Laryngectomees. I soared through the lyrics like Bobby Darin did in the Fifties. The next thing I knew, the audience was on their feet. Three decades of practice and preparation and a survivor had become a “thriver.” I won.
If we now live in an age where people can win singing contests without vocal cords, anything is possible.