N E W Y O R K, Feb. 7, 2001 -- For nearly a year, Rod Stewart thought he might have lost the trademark raspy voice that made songs like “D’ya Think I’m Sexy?” and “Tonight’s the Night” infectious rock ’n’ roll classics.
The 56-year-old British rocker was unable to sing for nine months after having a lump removed from his thyroid gland in Los Angeles last April. The lump — spotted during a routine CAT scan — was benign, but some of the material around it was cancerous.
“They literally, you know, cut you right through the throat,” Stewart told Good Morning America in the first of a three-part interview with Diane Sawyer that is airing this week.
The doctors had warned him that it would be six months until his voice recovered, but Stewart actually endured a nine-month stretch when he was not sure if he would be able to sing again.
“And it just took a bit of time ... before the voice got back, and as you can hear, it's not properly back yet, but it will. Just needs to be re-trained,” Stewart said.
Stewart said he was completely floored when he was told he had cancer. He had been the picture of good health and did not see any symptoms. An avid soccer player, who once dabbled as a professional, he takes good care of himself, he said.
"I always thought I was so fit," Stewart said. "You know, I play soccer and I work out every day. I mean, the big "C" was the furthest thing from my mind ... yeah, it was a terrible shock. I mean, I just went into total silence for a few days. Early detection. Men have got to get to the doctors and get, you know, get it detected."
The type of cancer that he had is slow-growing, and found mostly in women, and it did not require any additional treatment after the surgery. But perhaps even more difficult for a singer was the inability to sing. He was told that his voice would return in six months. So he waited. And waited.
"So I thought, after six months, I started singing and nothing happened," Stewart said. "Then eight months and nine months. And it's only just recently started coming back."
The rock star was so concerned that he began scouting around for new employment, and had considered becoming a landscape gardener, or antique dealer. Instead of trying to sing every day, he had to remain relatively voiceless for six months.
"Well, they said literally, 'Leave it for six months and your voice will come back clean,' " Stewart said. "It's like any surgery. I mean, I've had operations on this right knee, through soccer, on the cartilage. Of course, you have to go through rehabilitation. And I never did any of that. I just thought they come back magically. The muscles shrink, and they lose their memory, and they don't know what to do. They still don't know what to do."
Time to Jam
Stewart said he started out by trying to sing as a vocal coach might instruct him. But the "ahhh, ahhh, ahh," wasn't getting him anywhere. So it was time for a jam session.
"You know what really works is just singing live, you know, and getting into the posture that you get into when you sing, throwing your head back and going through the notes," Stewart said. "In other words, rehearsing with the band. And that's what, you know, is bringing it back."
Every three weeks he gets a little bit better, hitting some notes he couldn't quite reach two months ago. But when he puts it in perspective, not being able to hit the high notes beats what could have been a much bleaker alternative.
"Well, you know, what would have been the outcome if I hadn't have had a CAT scan? You know, three or four years, it could have been lethal, absolutely lethal," Stewart said. And that knowledge shook his world quite a bit, he told Sawyer.
"You tend to get everything in perspective, because being that close to something that lethal and fatal, you know, there's always the thought, you know, "I'm going to live forever" like you do, and all of a sudden you realize you can't, and it can strike anybody, any age. No matter who you are, it could cut you down," he said.
One of the Lucky OnesIt occupies his thoughts enough to prompt him to reach out to others who also have cancer, and were not quite so lucky. In fact, the father of five decided to see children who had cancer.
"I just visited the City of Hope Foundation out in Pasadena, and to see small children dying of cancer with absolutely no hope, I think, God, I'm one of the lucky ones," Stewart said. "He must have given me a second chance, and there's something I've got to do with the rest of my life.So I'm going to be working with the City of Hope Foundation."
Stewart will help publicize the foundation's work, he said. He sees the time spent with the children as a way to help others and count his own blessings.
"You really just realize how lucky you are,"Stewart said. "I mean, what do you say to two parents in a room with their child that's no bigger than that, and their chances of living are 80 percent? You know, you don't know what to say. It's hard."
The kids at the center don't know who he is, but the parents recognize the rock icon.
"But you only see those shaven heads and these little shriveled bodies, and you go, "Why?" Sometimes I think the playing field is certainly not even. You know, it's just not," Stewart said. When he is in the room with the young cancer patients, he finds that the best thing to do is what he knows best.
"Well, I usually get in and sing, because I do that better than anything," Stewart said "You just come for the parents. The parents usually turn out to be fans, and they're just knocked out to see me. But the kids are usually so doped up, you know, they can't react."
Hearing That Voice AgainWhen he does sing, it feels like a return to the days before the cancer scare, before the uncertainty that he would ever be able to use his gift again. But all the singing has taken a toll on his speaking voice, he said.
"Well, essentially it could have gone, you know. It's just kind of good to hear the old voice coming back," Stewart said.
He loves his raspy, raw-sounding voice, but for a minute he wondered what it would have been like if he came back with a different voice ... say, Frank Sinatra's.
"Then I really could have made it," he said with a laugh.