Opera Singer Had Months to Live, But New Treatments Eliminated Cancerous Tumors

Zheng Cao was told she had months to live, but new treatments eradicated tumors.

December 21, 2010, 11:02 PM

Dec. 21, 2010 — -- At the annual Christmas concert of the San Francisco Boys Chorus, one voice sounded out like no one in the crowd had ever heard before. Singing "Oh Holy Night", the woman at the front of the theatre had a life story that was perhaps worthy of her own opera.

Zheng Cao, born during China's Cultural Revolution, came to America 23 years ago with virtually nothing.

"Zheng is one of God's best creatures," said Frederica von Stade, a fellow opera singer. "When he puts a lot of good things all in one person, it results in someone like Zheng."

With two suitcases at $45 in hand, Cao arrived Dec. 17, 1988. After formal training she became a household name on America' grandest stages, as one the great mezzo-sopranos to come from abroad.

But in 2008, on stage and off, something was wrong. Zheng had a pain that wouldn't go away. Soon medical tests delivered grim news.

"I said, how bad is it?" Zheng, 44, recalled in an interview with "Good Morning America." "And she said 'it's stage four.'"

Despite having never smoked, Zheng had stage four lung cancer that had spread throughout her body. Her doctors gave the San Francisco woman six months to live.

"She had 24 tumors in her brain, a tumor in her spine," said Dr. David Larson of Washington Hospital in Fremont, California. There were large tumors everywhere.

Zheng said it felt like she had dropped everything and it just scattered.

"And that moment felt so bad about "My God, what am I going to tell my friends? And what am I going to tell my parents?'"

She said she called it her death sentence of a few months. But she turned the bad news into a journey of life and living and started keeping a video diary to remember it.

And then her tragedy began to look like a miracle. Her inner circle came together quickly, formulating a plan to save her.

First, a drug called Tarceva worked wonders. Then ELEKTA Gamma Knife surgery with Larson not only shrunk but removed all 24 tumors in her brain. They called it a true miracle.

Tumors Haven't Returned In More Than a Year

"It's been a year and a half," said Larson. "Those tumors haven't regrown and no new tumors have resurfaced."

With drugs and other treatment, soon tumors elsewhere in Zheng's body shrunk considerably or disappeared. With her cancer under control, she returned to the stage. But while stage four lung cancer is controllable, it remains incurable.

But if something does happen to Zheng, knowing that her loved ones can just turn on recordings of her singing comforts her.

"I just think that if one day if I'm gone they can still live with my singing," said Zheng. "If they miss me they can just turn on the TV and they can see me singing happy and they can turn on the CD player and hear me sing."

Through all the treatments, Larson and Zheng started getting close.

"I went with her to a gala and had dinner a few times and then Cupid started manifesting itself," said Larson.

Soon they fell in love and were married just last Friday at the Getty Mansion in San Francisco.

Zheng wore a traditional red Chinese wedding dress, a costume from one of her operas.

Her friends said her life of miracles is much like one of the operas Zheng performs in.

"The grand finale is like the end of a Rossini opera where the guy gets the girl, the girl gets the guy -- lots of high notes and drum rolls and everybody walks out of the theatre feeling happy and better," von Stade said.

Larson said he tries to have as many happy days as possible.

"And that's what we do every single day," said Larson.

Click HERE to learn more about the Gamma Knife.

Click HERE to visit the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation.

Click here to return to the "Good Morning America" website.

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