A Voice for Hope
by Jessica Webb Errickson
Classical crossover soprano Bárbara Padilla has a voice that demands to be heard. In 2009, the powerhouse vocalist from Guadalajara, Mexico, took the stage to audition for a spot on NBC’s America’s Got Talent. Standing in front of a celebrity panel of judges, Bárbara belted an awe-inspiring rendition of “O Mio Babbino Caro” that earned her a standing ovation and a ticket to the next round of the competition. The singer’s vocal performances continued to impress week after week, leading up to the show’s finale, where she snagged first runner up.
While she didn’t win the competition, Bárbara won the hearts of the judges and fans alike. But it wasn’t just her singing that left an impression. During her audition, Bárbara revealed that as a cancer survivor, she has experienced miracles.
Bárbara’s story of survival begins in 1996 when, while studying music at the University of Guadalajara, she started feeling uncharacteristically run down. She also noticed a couple of unusual lumps in her neck. She wasn’t too concerned, but decided to have a doctor check her out anyway. “The lumps were hard, and they didn’t hurt,” Bárbara tells Coping magazine. “I just thought they were muscles that were developing from singing.”
Instead, the lumps turned out to be a symptom of stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma. “I don’t think I understood what was going on when they told me that I had cancer,” Bárbara admits. “I was more in shock than anything else. I just knew that my life wasn’t in my hands at all.” Clinging to her faith in God, the spiritual songs-tress began an aggressive course of treatment.
I wanted to keep singing, and I wanted to tell my story.
She also continued to pursue her childhood dream of singing professionally. After graduating college, she took a position as section leader and soloist of the State Choir of Jalisco. However, despite having endured several rounds of vein-scorching chemotherapy, Bárbara’s cancer was unrelenting. Her choir director and mentor, Harlan Snow, insisted on flying her to Houston for a consultation with doctors at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Upon landing in Houston, Bárbara got more than she bargained for when her caretaker for the trip put in a call to Peter Jacoby, the music director of the University of Houston’s Edythe Bates Old Moores Opera Center, urging him to hear Bárbara sing.
“If you talked to him today,” Bárbara explains, “he would tell you, ‘I don’t know why I said yes. I answered the phone and this lady I’d never heard of tells me I need to hear this young woman sing, and I said yes.’” He wasn’t even supposed to be in the office that day. Bárbara is convinced it was divine intervention.
Peter was so blown away by Bárbara’s audition that he offered her a scholarship to the Moores School of Music on the spot. “It was just too much,” Bárbara enthuses. “I was offered a full scholarship to a major university based on my voice. I just needed my treatment to be done.”
This gave Bárbara a new reason to fight. But in a cruel twist of fate, her doctors back home informed her that the radiation treatments she now needed to save her life would likely damage her vocal chords so severely that she would never sing again. Knowing that in order to sing she first had to live, Bárbara decided it was worth the risk.
Miraculously, “I didn’t lose my voice at all,” Bárbara says. “I had second degree burns around my neck and my head, but my vocal chords were never affected.”
With her radiation treatments finished and her voice salvaged, Bárbara headed back to Texas. But it wasn’t long after she had settled into her University of Houston dorm room that she learned her cancer had returned. A risky bone marrow transplant was her only remaining option.
“That was the first time I felt completely defeated,” Bárbara concedes. But her friends and family rallied around her, and with a strengthened resolve, she returned to Guadalajara, ready to do whatever she needed to do to survive. Though her doctors feared the transplant would be unsuccessful, as chemotherapy had severely weakened her bone marrow, Bárbara once again defied the odds. Not only was the procedure a success, but she recovered so quickly that she was on her way back to the Moores School of Music just a short month later. This time, the cancer was behind her for good.
Bárbara graduated from the University of Houston in 2004 with a master’s degree in vocal performance, but she decided to take a break from singing to stay home with her daughter. However, it wasn’t long before the voice she fought so hard to save was begging to be heard. “I wanted to keep singing,” Bárbara explains, “and I wanted to tell my story.” So when she learned that America’s Got Talent was holding auditions nearby, she hopped in line. And the rest is history.
With cancer in the rearview, Bárbara’s musical dreams are coming true, starting with the May 2014 release of her self-titled debut album. Through years of treatment and multiple relapses, she knows that a little bit of faith can go a long way. “My perspective was very different at the end of the whole fight than at the beginning,” Bárbara says, reflecting on her five-year cancer journey. “But it was my faith in God – his love, his strength – that helped me through.”
What’s more, Bárbara reminds us that no matter how bad things look, there is hope. As she explained to the judges during her America’s Got Talent audition, “When you have hope, you keep going.”
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2014.