Riverland entertainer MICK KELLY says he is ‘lucky to be alive’ following a long and life-threatening battle with throat cancer. Murray Pioneer journalist SARA GILLIGAN sat down with the Moorook resident recently to hear his story and find out whether he will sing again…
LOCAL opera singer Mick Kelly hit his lowest note when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of throat cancer at the end of 2017.
For 25 years – including 15 in the Riverland – the Moorook resident has entertained crowds before an abnormal tumour robbed him of his voice.
While Mick’s cancer battle may be over, the potential lifetime treatment effects still weigh heavily on the former performer’s shoulders.
Following intense chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Mick said the side effects were “pretty nasty”, but manageable compared to the alternative.
Despite a painful journey riddled with financial loss, Mick’s positive spirit remains.
“My story has certainly pinched at many heart strings, being an opera singer who got throat cancer, and I have never smoked,” he said.
“I would have preferred testicular cancer, because then I could have hit the really high notes.
“It would have taken my shows to another level.
“You need a sense of humour from this, because you tend to leave your dignity at the door when you spend five months in hospital.
“But I’m still here – my children still have a father and my wife still has a husband.”
Mick put his positive outlook on life down to the love and support of his wife, Amy, and daughters Grace and Laila.
“I have justified this whole journey by saying if my family doesn’t get cancer, then I will take it 100 more times, I don’t care,” he said.
“My wife and girls mean everything to me, and my job is to protect them.
“Without family and without that love, you wouldn’t have as much to fight for, and for me there is no way I would want to cause them any pain, whatsoever.”
FOR more than a year, Mick’s life has followed the tune of a sad and complicated melody, spending most of his time in and out of hospital.
In April 2018, Mick was rushed to Adelaide following a setback in his treatment and almost “died on the table”.
“I had a piece of bone lodged in my throat from a previous surgery and it went necrotic through the radiation therapy, rotted in my throat and caused an infection,” he said.
“I had a couple of near-death experiences and am very lucky to still be here.
“My wife saved my life a couple of times and I owe her big time.”
For at least two years Mick said he would suffer a variety of treatment side effects, including numb feet, hearing loss and nerve damage.
“I don’t actually know if these side effects will ever go away,” he said.
“I have no saliva, so I have fake, bottled saliva and drink up to six litres of water a day.
“I have a numb side of the face and I’m numb all the way down my shoulder and to my chest, which is cool, because I can stick pins in it and it’s a great party trick.
“Because I have no lymph nodes I have lymphedema and suffer fluid build-up in my face.
“I’ve also drank my food through a tube and lost 73kg in 10 months, but I’m certainly not complaining about that.”
After being stripped of his main source of income, Mick said his family had lost more than $100,000 over the past year.
“That leaves a fairly big hole,” he said.
“I’m almost well enough now to start talking to politicians about the financial burden that happens when cancer strikes a family – especially when you live in a rural area like the Riverland and are removed from your home base and have to move away from your loved ones.
“You lose control and your life gets hijacked.
“But I am very proud of my wife for keeping the family afloat. She has been a saint and my oak and now I understand why I love her so much.”
Getting diagnosed right before Christmas was particularly bad timing for Mick.
“I was just about to start up a new business venture: Riverland Wine Tours,” he said.
“But unfortunately the drugs that I am on stopped me from driving commercially.
“I plan to start weening off those drugs now so I can get back on the bus and get that source of income back.
“It’s definitely been hard not to let the walls close in around me.”
Whether Mick will one day pick up a microphone and return to the stage remains unclear.
“I’ve missed singing like crazy,” he said.
“During one of my surgeries they put in a tracheostomy and tubes and did a bit of damage, so it’s a waiting game. Hopefully time is the great healer.
“I’m hoping I will be able to sing again by the end of the year, but it depends how my throat heals.
“I do scales on the piano every day and can do a low register, but I have trouble stretching to a high register.
“The burning of the radiation has shortened all the muscles and trying to reach up hurts.”
Mick said the permanent loss of his voice would devastate him.
“It would be the death of a part of me,” he said.
“There’s nothing like the feeling of being up on stage and entertaining people, especially during the happiest moments of their lives.
“But if that’s the end, I will just have to reinvent myself.
“I’ve just started a new job at Berri Estates Winery in the cellar door, and that is feeding my love of meeting new people.
“I’m so grateful for the love and support the Riverland has shown me and if anyone would like to swing by and see how I’m doing, they’re more than welcome to drop in and I can send them out with some wine.”
MICK encouraged people facing a similar battle to remain positive.
“Every cancer journey is different and it’s a real flip of the coin sometimes,” he said.
“You need to keep high spirits and look to the people you love.
“Money comes and goes, but you can’t get your life back when it is gone, and you just have to fight. Be a tiger, get in there and battle like a warrior and you will come out with the scars of a warrior.
“There is nothing like love to give you strength and that is what we live for.”