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Sylvia McNair
“Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This.”

Grammy Award-Winning Songstress and
Breast Cancer Survivor

by Laura Shipp

Sylvia McNair Cancer Survivor

(photo by John Bragg)

Two-time Grammy Award winner Sylvia McNair lays claim to a remarkable 25-year career in the musical realms of opera, oratorio, cabaret, and musical theater. Since 1982, Sylvia has performed with almost every major American and European orchestra and opera company, including the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, the Salzburg Festival, and the New York Philharmonic. She has sung for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, presented a recital at the U.S. Supreme Court by special invitation from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and once performed with the Vienna Philharmonic for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

A renowned vocalist with over 70 recordings and worldwide accolades, Sylvia values one particular success above the rest – defeating cancer. She was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer in 2006, less than six months after obtaining a clear mammogram. During that year, the year “when this huge brick wall came crashing down on my head,” she tells Coping magazine, Sylvia endured months of chemotherapy and radiation, underwent surgery to remove her left breast, and persevered through four other major surgeries related to her cancer. And if that weren’t enough, Sylvia was just coming out of a painful divorce, ending her nearly 20-year marriage.

“It’s so easy to start blaming yourself for ‘failures,’” Sylvia says. “I certainly did. Failed marriage, failed career (she had to cancel several months of performances due to her medical treatments), failed health. Every direction I turned, I was being hit with failure.

“The one thing that always gave me a little relief,” she says, “was reading about or hearing other people, especially people with cancer, talk about their ‘failures’ as well.”

“My body is forever altered. But so is my spirit.”

Sylvia McNair Cancer Survivor

(photo by JRay Markin)

Now, three years on the other side of that “failure” called cancer, Sylvia views it more as a gift than a setback. “Cancer is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me,” she says earnestly, before adding with defiant laughter, “And you can put that in bold print!”

“Cancer is a perspective giver like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. It has given me so much more than it has taken away. And it has taken away a lot,” she continues. “My body is forever altered. But so is my spirit,” Sylvia says, her voice now projecting an air of hopefulness, “and my spirit is now living with much more clarity and gratitude. I’m living larger than I have ever lived, and I live every single day of my life in such a way that if it happens to be my last day on earth, I’ll be contented with it. Cancer has given me that gift.”

Unfortunately, cancer was not so benevolent toward her professional life. When it came to her singing career, Sylvia says cancer “was a killer.” She confides, “Having to cancel many months of work was not only financially devastating, but it was professionally devastating as well. I had to drop off the scene, and I’m in a business where it’s hard enough to be employed under the best of circumstances. It was terrifying.”

But don’t be so quick to count Sylvia out. “I am definitely back in the saddle, better and stronger than ever,” she says. “The summer of 2009 was the summer of my dreams.” She sang the lead in two musical theater productions, Camelot and A Little Night Music. This is a welcome change from her musical roots in opera, a career transition that Sylvia admits was purely pleasure driven.

After being given what she feels is a second chance at life, Sylvia now grabs every opportunity that comes her way and never fails to appreciate the gift that she has been given: “Singing music I love, working with people I love in places I love – life doesn’t get any better than this!”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

For more on Sylvia, visit her official website,

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2009.