Losing my voice to throat cancer threatened to end my career as a musician. Instead, it was just the beginning

Losing my voice to throat cancer threatened to end my career as a musician. Instead, it was just the beginning

I realized that, even if I never sang another note, there were other ways to express myself

Photo by Sierra Nallo

I first received a diagnosis of throat cancer in 2006, when I was 19. I’d been occasionally losing my voice—it would disappear for a few days, then come back—and after about a year, I decided to see a doctor. The tumour was small and limited to one vocal cord. After a 30-minute surgery in which a camera was inserted into my throat and a laser applied to the cancer, it was gone. The doctors told me that there was a chance it would come back, but I was young and the odds of it returning were relatively small. I worried about it for a few years, but as time went on, the chances of recurrence decreased. I put it behind me and moved on with my life, waiting tables and studying to become a sommelier in my hometown of Caldas da Rainha, in Portugal.

I dedicated my spare time to music. I grew up in a musical family—my father played the accordion, and I learned piano at a young age. As I got older, I played percussion and sang backup vocals in a couple of cover bands. I loved singing and often sang throughout the day. I’d play shows around twice a week, doing everything I could to drench my life in sound and music. My dream was to have my own band one day.

In 2013, I moved to Canada to be closer to my mother, who’d moved to Toronto a few years earlier. After a year in London, Ontario, I moved to Toronto, where I worked odd jobs—some waiting gigs, some construction. Then, in 2015, I started having problems with my throat again. It was worse than the first time—I was extremely fatigued and lost my voice completely. Eventually, my throat became so sore that I couldn’t swallow at all. I could eat only soft foods. I went to the hospital twice in one week. Both times, I was told it was nothing. 

Around a week and a half later, I was at my construction job, eating some rice for lunch. My throat was so sore that the rice got lodged in it and I started choking. My co-workers were terrified, and although I eventually managed to spit it up, I was rattled. I called an ambulance the next day and, unable to speak, wrote a note detailing my medical history. The paramedics took me to Mount Sinai to be seen by a specialist.

The otolaryngologist told me I needed surgery right away and performed a tracheotomy, a quick procedure to open an airway at the base of my throat. The cancer was back, I learned, and this time, it was Stage 4 and had spread to the entire larynx. I texted my mom, who came to see me minutes before I went into surgery. They had to keep me awake for the tracheotomy, and I could smell the harsh chemicals involved. It’s something I never want to relive. Afterward, the doctor told me that, had I not sought medical attention, I could have died the next day.

I was going to need major surgery, and because my visa had expired, I’d have to pay out-of-pocket to do it in Toronto. The hospital estimated that the total cost with chemo and radiotherapy could be around $350,000, so I decided to fly back to Lisbon, where the procedure would be covered. Even though the tracheotomy was comparatively minor, I’m forever grateful to the doctor who caught the cancer’s return.

I didn’t have much time to pack for Portugal, but I grabbed an acoustic guitar I owned that I’d never learned to play. My cajón, a box-shaped percussion instrument, was too big to make the trip, and I figured I was about to have some time on my hands. At the hospital in Lisbon, the doctors gave me good news and bad news: since I was only 28 and had never smoked, they could treat me with an aggressive procedure that had an 80 per cent success rate. The bad news: I would never speak or sing again. The tracheotomy I’d had in Toronto was reversible—this wouldn’t be. I was just grateful that my chances were good and there was hope for a cure.

Twelve doctors performed the nine-hour surgery, in which they removed the full larynx and all of my vocal cords along with a portion of my pharynx. It was such a large procedure that they had to close down an entire floor of the hospital to accommodate it. Recovery was long and lonely. I was mostly by myself in the hospital during the eight-month stay. At first, my head had to be kept in a brace to keep my chin down so that my throat could properly heal. I couldn’t swallow at all, and I had to be fed through a tube in my nose. I lost a massive amount of weight, going from around 175 pounds to 110. For a month, I had to write everything down to communicate, until I learned to speak in a faint whisper. Later, I did vocal therapy and learned to speak through my esophagus in the same way you burp. It allows me to speak a little louder, but it’s difficult and tiring, so I only use it when it’s necessary. 

I underwent three rounds of chemotherapy and 33 radiotherapy sessions. It was an isolating and painful time, and to get through it, I did the only thing I could: I picked up that guitar. I played for around five hours a day, consulting some YouTube videos but mostly working through the music by ear. Years of playing in bands with guitarists gave me an idea of how I wanted things to sound, and I slowly started writing some of my own music. Through months of trial and error, I learned to put the music in my head out into the world.

The author learning guitar while receiving chemo

As part of my treatment, doctors took skin from my forearm to reconstruct part of my throat. I couldn’t move my arm for a month. I did physiotherapy to make sure I didn’t lose any mobility in my hand. I’d spent enough time learning guitar that the prospect was terrifying—maybe even more so than losing my voice. Guitar was my coping mechanism, my escape. I didn’t know what I’d do if I lost it too.

As the weeks turned into months, my recovery dragged on and my guitar playing slowly improved. While I was receiving chemo one day, a janitor who was a singer saw me pouring my emotions into my guitar. She filmed me playing, and I posted the video online. She told me she had a friend who could help me and connected me with a well-known Portuguese music producer. Meanwhile, in those endless hours of isolation, I started to make plans for when I got out. I realized that, even if I never sang another note, there were other ways to express myself. Even if I didn’t have a voice, music could give me one.

My playing was inspiring some of the other patients, so the hospital put on an event for me to perform. It was my first opportunity in a long time to play for an audience. It was the first event of its kind, and it wound up on the Ministry of Health’s website. By the time I got out of the hospital, in late September 2016, word about me had spread in the Portuguese music scene. Through my connection to the producer, I sold the rights to two songs I’d written to two different acts. I reached out to a singer I knew, and we started performing covers around central Portugal. Music became more than a hobby, and eventually, I was performing with five different bands, playing three or four days a week—sometimes two shows in one day. For the first time, after the hardest year of my life, music was my job. My dream was slowly becoming a reality. I had connections and a steady income. But, in 2018, I did something that everyone told me was crazy: I left it all behind and moved back to Toronto.

It’s difficult to gain widespread notoriety as a musician in Portugal. I knew that, if I wanted to take things to the next level, I needed to be in North America. Plus, I found that people in Portugal were a little more close-minded about my voice. They’d see the patch on my neck from surgery, hear my faint, raspy whisper and look at me differently. In Toronto, I got fewer of those looks. Even if I didn’t have nearly as many connections as I did in Portugal, I knew that this city was the right place to be.

I called my new musical act Mute Sounds. The music said everything I’d learned to express without a voice, and unlike in the cover bands of my early 20s, I wrote original songs to tell my story. Those early songs were slow, acoustic and emotional—an attempt to express what I’d been through in the past year. I did a few small projects in Portugal under the new name and started putting together the sketches of a first album. 

Then something else changed in my life. I met Katy, a pianist and singer, through a friend whom I played keyboard with back in Toronto. We hit it off and started dating. When I released my first solo album as Mute Sounds, Reborn, in July 2020, she featured on piano. She became my rock, and everything I’ve achieved since is thanks to the fact that I have her beside me. We got married in September 2021.

I released a second solo album, Roads, in December 2020. My first two albums included some acoustic songs, like the first ones I wrote, and others that were inspired by my love of rock. The online response to the rock tracks was great, and I realized that this was the path I wanted to take. I started listening to more instrumental rock, like Russian Circles and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And, as I’d always planned, I started to build a band. I put out ads for a bass player and contacted a drummer friend. Eventually, we built a group of five musicians.

On November 7, 2021, we played our first show, at Lee’s Palace. It was an incredible feeling and a privilege to be at such a historic venue, to finally put the cap on all those years of work. Seeing the band play my songs was overwhelming. I cried. It was a night I’ll never forget.

Mute Sounds performing at the Black Swan Tavern in June 2022

We’ve played 13 more shows since then, despite a five-month break to write and record our first album as a band at Arcade Studios. Resilience is slated to come out sometime before the spring. I’m really proud of the sound—it’s a dynamic blend of styles, from industrial rock to Portuguese folk music. It’s the kind of music I always dreamed of making, the sounds in my head translated and put out into the world as art, by talented musicians Ralf Caetano, Ben Cook and Luis Ramirez, who are all on the same wavelength. Katy now manages us, and we’re planning a small tour around Ontario. Who knows where things will go from there?

For me, the best part is that I get to spend every day doing what I love, what I’ve spent my whole life working toward. The Toronto music scene has welcomed us with open arms, and the turnout has grown as we’ve played more shows. Even though I can’t say it out loud, I’ve been given the chance to share my story with the world. In many ways, the worst days of my life eventually gave me my greatest gift. I’m so thankful I made it here.