St. Francis Soprano: How Singing Saved Her Life

By VICTORIA FORD | Oct 04, 2017
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

All her life, Michele Beck has used her voice to glorify God, believing her singing talent to be a gift, best used by sharing it with others.

“I like to say the Lord blessed me,” Beck said, sitting in one of the choir pews at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Brant Beach, where she has been the Music Ministry director for 16 years (and a cantor for 20), during which time she has built up the music department from one small adult choir to several choirs, about 100 voices strong, grouped into children’s, middle school, teen, college and adult, working separately or sometimes together.

When a stage 2 thyroid cancer diagnosis last year threatened to take away that gift, she embarked on a journey defined by fear, relief, faith, hope and love and has come full circle with a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation for all she holds dear.

Beck grew up in Bergen County, studied classical voice at William Paterson University, attended Westminster Choir College at Rider and now lives in Manahawkin with her husband Andy and their two sons, 12 and 15, all of whom are musically inclined (brass and strings) and often enjoy music together at home.

Inspired by a choir director she once had, Beck said she’s “known for a long time” what she would do. The immense power in the sound of a large group of concerted voices never loses its effect. Her career in music has taken her through opera, classical and art song, a highlight of which has been singing “The Messiah” with a full orchestra.

In the summer of 2016 Beck noticed some troubling changes in her singing. Her voice would tire easily. She didn’t jump to conclusions because nodules are common, especially for women, she said. Nonetheless, her doctor told her to show it to a specialist. She saw an endocrinologist and an endocrine surgeon. An ultrasound and biopsy were performed, with “indeterminate” results. The biopsy showed calcifications in the thyroid nodule, but the doctors’ views were, basically, “you’re young, let’s wait.”

The assessment didn’t sit well with her, so she pursued additional medical opinions.

Online research led her to (Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association), where she found docs at Fox Chase Cancer Center, endocrinologist Colleen Veloski and surgical oncologist Drew Ridge, who had experience with treatment of people who use their voice. The depth of knowledge she encountered was lifesaving, she said.

The confirmation of a papillary carcinoma diagnosis was both terrifying and a relief. Thyroid is the most prevalent endocrine cancer, Beck said, and papillary carcinoma accounts for 70 to 80 percent of thyroid cancers.

But she takes issue with people who tell her, “well, thankfully, you got the ‘good cancer’,” because no cancer is good cancer.

She is, however, grateful to have detected the problem early – it was in her thyroid but not her lymph nodes – and that the outcome wasn’t worse. Her cancer is a “mover,” though, so vigilance is key.

Her singing career makes her naturally more sensitive to changes in her voice and throat, so in a way, singing saved her life.

The nodule was displacing her trachea, pressing on the vocal nerve, which runs near the thyroid. That’s why the surgery is so risky, and damage likely.

When the experts warned her she might never sing again, she said that was the least of her worries – she only wanted to be OK for her husband and boys. She prayed to her higher power, giving thanks for the gift of song, with which she had tried to serve well, and humbly accepting her fate if God’s will was to take it from her.

The surgery was in January. She had a partial thyroidectomy, on the right side. She didn’t end up needing to get radioactive iodine, but she will take a TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone)-suppressing medication for the rest of her life, and she runs an above-average risk of a recurrence, even decades later. It’s a balancing act, she said.

Because her voice has experienced trauma, her 15- to 20-minute daily morning warm-ups are essential to maintain her vocal health. “If I’m busy I do it in the car,” she said.

Throughout her ordeal, she received lots of support from her family and congregation. Her organist babysat, her flute player watched the dog. Friends brought food and supplies during her recovery. Vocal and speech therapy helped in the rehab process, which entailed trips to Philadelphia once or twice a week for five months. Her therapists were very impressed with the surgeon, she said.

Realizing she could still sing after surgery was a miraculous feeling because “that part of me I thought I was going to have to grieve was still there.”

Her first week back to singing at St. Francis was Holy Week, right before Easter – a very emotional time rife with real and symbolic meaning. Her voice today is stronger, freer than it has been in years.

The take-home message, in light of September’s having been Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month: Listen to your body, trust your instincts, ask for explanations and get additional opinions. “You have to be your own advocate,” she said.

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