The following is a guest post from Andrea Densley, singer, songwriter, and empty-nester mother of six.
Prepping for cancer surgery would not normally have been on my To-Do List for the production of my Christmas album. Call the music arranger, procure song licensing, have a needle biopsy…. I was planning my life — not my sickness, and certainly not my death.
The album was my first, only four songs, but my first album! It was a personal thanks offering for relief from years of medical challenges and also my heartfelt celebration of Christmas. My gift.
I’d had surgery to remove my thyroid and a nodule of thyroid cancer. During the surgery a nerve was damaged and my left vocal cord was paralyzed. I’m a jazz singer who suddenly could only squeak out a handful of musical notes and had a barely audible speaking voice. Life had been a roller coaster of depression and anxiety. Now with trauma to my voice—my instrument—I felt like Alice, free-falling down a rabbit hole into a strange, unpredictable world.
After two years of therapies, my specialists concluded that the damage was permanent. I scheduled a procedure to graft a healthy nerve into the damaged area. This wouldn’t repair or improve my paralyzed vocal cord but it would firm up the surrounding muscle and provide support for the healthy vocal cord to work more easily.
Medical evaluations preceding the procedure revealed a new suspicious nodule snuggled next to the nerve of my healthy vocal cord. This cancer nodule indicated yet another surgery was required. With my doctor’s reluctant agreement, I postponed that extra procedure. I was already overwhelmed by the years of dealing with my damaged voice, the struggle with depression, the hectic pace of raising my family and the up-coming nerve graft surgery.
It was a success! Recovery was speedy, and I was able to sing again! During a holiday event in November of 2011, I felt strongly that I wanted to make a Christmas album before the next fall. But I also knew that surgery to remove the new cancerous nodule had to be scheduled, and that my voice—even breathing—was again in jeopardy. Was there time to create a small EP (extended play) album before the surgical deadline?
I’d never produced an album, and had slight resources to finance the project. I prayed; I wrestled down my anxiety, enabling me to negotiate with musicians and engineering professionals. The looming appointment for surgery provided a powerful catalyst. The Christmas album would be tangible evidence that I’d done my best with the talent I’d been given, and which I felt had been miraculously restored—in case things didn’t go well with the cancer procedure.
Fall of 2012 found me completing my Christmas EP, preparing for the holidays and for surgery. Post-surgery, my surgeon was beaming; the process had gone better than her best-case scenario. The day after surgery I could still speak, sing, and most importantly, breathe on my own!
As time passed and my scars healed I realized I didn’t have an ambition for what came next. I’d been focused on doctors’ appointments and physical difficulties and cancer and finishing the album. I’d been steeling myself for a potentially bad medical outcome, even expecting one. I’d never fully considered what to do if everything went well and I became healthy.
Surprise—I didn’t die. My voice is stronger than ever. I feel effervescent every day. My cyclical depression is under control thanks to medication and self-care. Part of that self-care is to formulate, as Whitney Johnson would describe it, my own “disruptive trajectory” for the next adventure. Subtle innuendo from family and mentors, false media messages, inferences drawn from religious culture had all melded into a personal “glass ceiling” of self-doubt. My perception of age and income limitations had undermined my longing for a professional music career. Now I know that the judgmental voices in my head have been more powerfully discouraging than anything directed toward me by peers or professionals.
I am going to lift this great dome of overhead glass, like the lid of a secret launch pad. My dream is to inspire others with my music. The exact path remains to be discovered, but I believe that there can be flight for all of us.
Andrea Densley is an award-winning singer, fashion designer and empty-nester mother of six who is impassioned about holding fast to hope. She is a performing jazz artist in the south Puget Sound region of Washington State and loves public speaking and creative dreaming.
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