The amazing story of a voice teacher helping his singer detect the early warning signs of Thyroid cancer.
CS Music is constantly inspired by voice teachers who go out of their way to help their students. This is an amazing story about a singer’s resilience after his teacher directed him to a medical need and how music directed both singer and teacher in the steps needed to save a person’s life.
CS Music: Start at the beginning, tell us about the lesson when you first found out you possibly had Thyroid Cancer.
Luis Javier: Dr. Hutchings did not tell me during our private lesson when he first saw my growth. He found it during an exercise while my neck was tilted back. He pulled me aside before a class later that day and informed me that my neck was abnormally large and was possibly due to an abnormality in my thyroid. I was advised to go to the doctor and get it examined.
CS: What convinced you to visit the doctor?
LJ: I noticed that my neck was large back when I was seventeen. However, since I had been to the doctor many times after that, I thought that it was my natural body and had accepted it. I had no knowledge of thyroid issues. When Dr. Hutchings had listed some common symptoms of an abnormal thyroid, some of them felt familiar. So, I wasted no time going to the doctor.
CS: How did you approach the decision to go through with surgery, and what was the experience like?
LJ: I had gotten an ultrasound, but it wasn’t conclusive. I needed a biopsy; however, I do not have insurance and could not afford any other type of medical intervention. My family had coincidentally planned a trip to the Dominican Republic. On that trip, we found the time to have my biopsy done. It was not until after my vacation that I had gotten my diagnosis. It was already two weeks or so into my last semester of my Bachelor’s. I had made the decision to finish the semester. My family and I went back to the Dominican Republic in May right after the end of the semester. I was fairly skeptical of the Dominican healthcare system, however, compared to the U.S. it was night and day. After meeting my surgeon, Dr. Sylvia Batista-Lemaire, I knew that I was in good hands. I had let her know that I was a singer. After that, she refused to operate without using a sonic scalpel. This is a device that makes extremely precise incisions, to make sure my larynx was not compromised. The surgery itself went well, however, the tumor was the length of my neck and went under my ribcage almost down to my heart. I was in surgery for an extra two hours.
CS: How does your voice feel and sound after surgery?
LJ: Before my surgery, I had no concept of head voice. Sometimes I had a “static” to my voice that no teacher could make sense of. After this kind of surgery, if your larynx was not damaged, full recovery takes six months. I did what I could during recovery. Seeing where my limit was each month. I kept Dr. Hutchings’ advice in mind and had done what he said and now can reach a register that I could not reach before.
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CS to Dr. Hutchings: How did you find Thyroid Cancer in a voice student?
Mitchell Hutchings: It is unethical to diagnose any medical condition as a voice teacher. However, we may often be the first line of defense against underlying conditions. It is not uncommon to suspect acid reflux or muscle tension dysphonia, but with Luis, I noticed two peculiar lumps below his thyroid notch during an exercise. I remember suggesting that he visit a doctor immediately.
CS: What was it like to have a voice student tell you that you saved his life?
MH: The last thing a voice teacher expects to hear is “you saved my life.” Often, we hope that music might help heal emotional wounds, but when voice lessons actually play a factor in life and death, the feeling is remarkably profound. The moment Luis told me that the lumps were in fact cancer, and that he was now in remission, occurred right after a performance of the annual Messiah concert at Florida Atlantic University. I was immediately overcome with joy. I could not believe it. Cancer had taken my own father’s life when I was still in high school, so knowing that I was able to assist in catching an early diagnosis was powerful.
CS: What training prepared you for finding this abnormality in the student’s throat?
MH: I learned the specific exercise I used when I found those lumps from Dr. Matthew Edwards. Understanding the anatomy of the throat came from many years of studying singing. I also had a minor field during my doctorate at the Eastman School of Music that included observing the brilliant work of laryngologist Dr. John W. Ingle, MD at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
CS: How has this experience changed your teaching?
MH: The experience has made me more appreciative of the moments we have with our students. It is a reminder that life is precious, and what we do as voice teachers is such a privilege.
Mitchell Hutchings is an Assistant Professor of Voice and Opera at Florida Atlantic University. He is a featured presenter at the 2020 CS Music Online Convention on Monday, May 25, 2:30 – 3:30 p.m. Click here to register for his class.