My Sarcoma Story – Kathleen

As is often the case with head and neck cancers, my tumor was discovered by my dentist. In January 1996, on a ski vacation with my partner, Evie, I asked her to help me identify a funny bump in the gumline over my back teeth. We agreed I should have my dentist take a look at my next appointment. In February, the dentist referred me for root canal treatment to an endodontist, who sought the corroboration of an oral surgeon, who immediately ordered a biopsy. By March, I had my diagnosis. I was in surgery by April. This was no ordinary dental emergency.

The diagnosis of craniofacial osteosarcoma in the jaw was cataclysmic for me as an opera singer at The Metropolitan Opera, as it put my career plans and my very instrument at risk. My concerns, apprehensions, preparations for surgery and recovery engulfed everyone I knew, and terrified my partner. It changed the trajectory of my life forever, though we could not know that at the time. Still, I am reluctant to call the experience “catastrophic” because it was unexpectedly rich in so many ways. And it was life. My life.

The greatest challenge, in the emergent crisis, was just to accept that this was happening, and every necessary thing was going to happen. It required concentrated effort to relinquish any illusion that it could be controlled, or hurried, or sidestepped. And then, because my facial reconstruction was protracted over months and then 10 years, hobbled by a succession of resistant infections and complications, we were overcome by a stultifying limbo. The limbo was awful.

Words of Wisdom:
Don’t be afraid to think the worst—because the stakes are high, and time is of the essence. It does no harm to speculate—but waiting and hoping and waiting some more can be deadly. And doctors, if you aren’t sure, please don’t hesitate to pass your patient off to someone else. There’s nobility in that too.

I wrote my story in a debut memoir, REARRANGED: An Opera Singer’s Facial Cancer and Life Transposed, due for release on October 10, 2023, by Heliotrope Books. Here is a description:

In lyrical prose, with musical allusions, clinical references, and a bit of comic relief, Rearranged follows Kathleen Watt’s plunge from the operatic stage into the netherworld of hospital life—its indigenous creatures, its peculiar language, its signposts of the mysterious human condition—through the devastation of cancer, and out the other side. Kathleen was a New York opera singer at mid-career, with a steady, lucrative chorus job at the Metropolitan Opera and solo gigs elsewhere, anticipating her best year ever. Instead, a vicious bone cancer blew her plans to smithereens, along with her face. She had to let everything go. Bit by bit, through a brutal alchemy of lethal toxins, titanium screws, and infinite kindness, she discovered new arrangements for old pieces, in a life catastrophically transposed. Not only a heart-wrenching medical odyssey, but an ultimately joyous personal journey of transformation.