Cancer patient sings his way to recovery

Music is a big part of Don Kreitz’s life; he remembers singing with his mom at the age of seven.

When he wasn’t at his day job as an interior design project manager, Don was belting out rock, country or blues songs with his band, Private Stock, in venues across Alberta. 

In 2011, however, his passion for singing took a hit after he contracted cancer and had to have his tongue and half his lower jaw removed. A thigh muscle was grafted from his leg to replace the tongue, and a leg bone replaced his jaw.

He was devastated. His doctor told him he would never sing again. 

“I didn’t mince words with him,” says Don. “I told him he was full of it and I said to him, 'I will sing again.'”

The doctor smiled at him and said, "I bet you a beer that you don’t sing again" and the bet was on. Don set his sights on singing again, but first he needed speech therapy to learn to speak again.

“It means a lot to me to be able to sing,” says Don. “My wife and my family were behind me all the way.”

While Don was receiving speech language therapy at the Cross Cancer Institute, his therapist, Anna, referred him to Shannon Kerr, a speech language pathologist at the Misericordia’s Institute for Reconstructive Sciences in Medicine (iRSM) and a jazz singer herself. 

“Our goal was to get Don to sing again, draw that ability out of him,” says Shannon. “We needed to recreate how he formed speech before the cancer. We spoke the same language of music, so it was an easy process to help him get back to singing.”

“Shannon’s vast knowledge of music and vocals combined with speech pathology was a great help in telling me what to listen for when I was learning to form words again,” says Don.

During Don’s two months of speech therapy, Shannon says he kept a positive attitude and was never frustrated when faced with a setback or obstacle.

“He worked so hard on his speech,” says Shannon. “Typically, we perform speech tests on patients, and he went from one-third of his speech being understood to having about 92 per cent of his speech being understood at the end of his sessions.”

A sign of real progress for Don came when he and Shannon performed three mini-concerts for iRSM staff. With Shannon on acoustic guitar, they sang "Amazing Grace." 

“The first concert was very satisfying and a little intimidating,” says Don. “I hadn’t performed in front of anyone in about 18 months.” 

“The whole staff were in tears,” says Shannon.

On his wedding anniversary in 2012, Don sang the song "Forever My Darling" to his wife, which later became known as "Terry’s Song" (his wife’s name).

Don says he is still a year away from performing full-time, but practises with band members and has even performed a couple of open mike sessions in public.

“One of the best pieces of advice I would give is that it’s OK to ask for help,” says Don. “I was fortunate to have staff and family support me even when I felt overwhelmed. 

"Never settle for good enough, keep trying to push through challenges. Let your successes surprise and ... celebrate them."

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