Throat cancer survivor celebrates with a song
April 15, 2014
Last fall, Jim Vardon sang one song in a Lake Wildwood Theatre production of "70 Girls 70." Though he spent his life performing from the stages of community theaters, this was a very special song, and there were some very special people in the audience to hear it.
They were the individuals who helped make it possible for Vardon, 71, to sing again after a 2008 diagnosis of advanced throat cancer, and years of treatment that followed. Occupying those seats were nearly all of the staff from the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Community Cancer Center.
At the time of his diagnosis, Vardon was certain that he would never sing again. Surgeons at a large medical center had recommended he undergo a laryngectomy — a procedure that removes the larynx and leaves the patient unable to speak except through a prosthetic speech device.
Vardon was resigned to that fate when a local friend, Denis Kutch, urged him to get a second opinion. At the time, Kutch ran a monthly support group for patients with head and neck cancer at the cancer center. He referred Vardon to Dr. David Kraus, medical director of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Sierra Nevada Memorial. Dr. Kraus offered Vardon an alternative treatment approach, involving radiation, chemotherapy, rehabilitation, a lot of hard work, and a chance to save his voice.
In June 2008, Vardon began radiation treatments, followed by courses of chemotherapy. Then came nearly two years of extensive work with Speech Pathologist Cindy Shaw. Both the cancer and its treatment caused Vardon difficulty in everything from speaking to swallowing, but the therapy proved successful.
"I always thought he would sing," Shaw declared. "Why? Because he thought he could do it. Jim worked hard, listened to the experts, and did not lose focus over time."
Ever so slowly, Vardon progressed from hoarseness to a smooth melodic tone with increasing pitch variation, noted Shaw. He laughs now when he recounts how his full voice returned to him.
"It suddenly came back while I was whispering to a bank teller, and scared the hell out of everybody," he said.
Vardon said it took a large group of people to heal his cancer and help him to speak and sing again. He credits his wife, Sue, the cancer center staff, Shaw, and the devoted work of Janet Rossman, the piano and voice teacher at Lake Wildwood Theatre, with helping him get back on the stage. She patiently helped him rediscover a singing voice that he now describes as upper register bass and low tenor.
He wasn't chosen at several auditions, and he and his wife decided they would stay connected with theater by volunteering.
Then came his role in "70 Girls 70," which ironically, is a comedy about a bunch of aged performers returning to the Broadway stage.
"I started out singing OK, but not very powerfully," he said. "Then, two weeks before the opening, my voice broke through and came back to about 98 percent. I blew the musical director away!"
Vardon's performance was especially meaningful to the cancer center staff in the audience that night, Dr. Kraus said. It led to hugs and not a few tears.
"We were thrilled to be there," he said. "We knew how important singing was for Jim, and our team is proud that we helped him realize his dream."
Vardon said he will continue to audition for local theater productions, but it's no longer important that he wins the parts.
"I know I'll have done my best," he said. "Just to be able to sing is all that matters to me now. I just love to sing, and I love music. This whole experience has taught me patience, tolerance, and compassion and resulted in my approaching life on a day-to-day basis. To me, being able to sing is wonderful, and something I once thought I'd never be able to do again."
For three years, Vardon has also run the cancer center's Head and Neck Support group that his friend Kutch started. He and Sue continue to volunteer at numerous theater programs in the area. She is a breast cancer survivor who went through treatment at the cancer center nearly a decade ago.
The Vardons lived and worked in the Chicago area before retiring to Penn Valley in 1998. Both active in community theater even in their youth, they met at an audition for "Kiss Me Kate" in Winnetka, IL, in the late 1970s, and soon after began to date.
"He sang so beautifully," Sue recalls. "I knew he was single because he wore pressed jeans. Only single guys sent their laundry out."
For more information about the cancer center, head and neck cancer support group or treatment programs at Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, call 530-274-6600.
All physicians providing care for patients at SNMH are members of the medical staff and are independent practitioners, not employees of the hospital.