On Finding His Joy After Throat Cancer Threatened His Voice
by Ashley Hubbard
Country music fans recognize John Berry by his pure, soulful tenor. Well known for megahits like “Your Love Amazes Me,” “She’s Taken a Shine,” and his glorious rendition of classic Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” the singer-songwriter topped the country music charts in the 1990s and hasn’t slowed down since – not even when he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
It started with an irritation in his throat
While preparing for his 22nd annual Christmas Songs and Stories Tour, John began feeling an irritation in his throat that just wouldn’t go away.
“It all started in early November 2018,” John says in a recent interview with Coping®, recalling the days leading up to his cancer diagnosis. “I was recording an album [Thomas Road] at the studio and I was drinking water like crazy because I felt like I had something stuck in my throat. I kept telling my wife, ‘I feel like I’ve got the skin of a Spanish peanut stuck in my throat.’”
John’s doctor prescribed a round of antibiotics and steroids for what appeared to be a simple tonsil infection. Despite the treatment, John’s symptoms persisted throughout the entire tour. Yet so too did his voice – remarkably unfazed.
“I did a 20-city tour and never missed a note,” John marvels thinking back on those long days on the road.
“Whether it’s a beautiful sunny day outside or we’ve got cancer, still let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Once the tour was complete, and after a second round of antibiotics offered no alleviation of his symptoms, John’s wife, Robin, urged him to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist (or ENT). As providence would have it, the doctor he ended up seeing for his throat problem had been an intern on his 1997 vocal cord surgery.
“Not that everyone’s voice isn’t important, but at least this gentleman understood what I did for a living,” John shares. “And it’s just funny how God puts people and circumstances in your life that just really make you feel comfortable all of the sudden.”
However, John’s relief didn’t last long. The doctor turned on his flashlight, looked in John’s throat, turned it off, and said, “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m a straight shooter. That’s throat cancer.”
“You could have pushed me over with a feather,” John admits. “That’s the last thing I was expecting him to say. A tonsillectomy, maybe. But the word cancer just never entered my mind.”
To confirm his preliminary diagnosis, the doctor ordered a CT scan, which revealed a tumor on John’s tonsils. John had a tonsillectomy, followed by a biopsy which showed a second developing tumor on his other tonsil. The diagnosis was official. John had throat cancer, or more specifically, tonsil cancer. A frightening diagnosis for anyone, but a devastating one for someone whose life’s work rests on his voice.
“Chemotherapy was about the worst thing I’ve experienced in my whole life. It was so violent. Hard to imagine, hard to fathom, hard to think about.”
John had his tonsils and part of his soft palate removed. After the surgery, he endured 35 rounds of radiation, five days a week for seven weeks. Additionally, once a week for eight weeks, he received chemotherapy.
John admits that while chemotherapy didn’t seem too bad at first, about halfway through it, his feelings quickly changed. “Chemotherapy was about the worst thing I’ve experienced in my whole life,” he shares. “It was so violent. Hard to imagine, hard to fathom, hard to think about.”
Leaning on his support system
As bad as it was, John is quick to talk up his support system, which includes his wife; their children; his manager, Brian Smith; his publicist, Bev Moser, his friends; and even the Nashville music community. All of whom he says he couldn’t have done any of this without.
When friends asked what they could do for him, John was adamant that he didn’t need any extra attention or assistance. However, after multiple Nashville musicians called John’s team trying to offer their support, in true Music City fashion, the idea of putting on a benefit concert was manifested. In April 2019, some of the biggest names in country music gathered at City Winery in Nashville and put on a show to support John and his family, with a good portion of the proceeds going to Music Health Alliance, an organization that helps people in the music industry navigate the health insurance system.
“The people who came out to support us were remarkable,” John shares. “It was quite astonishing.”
Finding his joy
When he was first diagnosed with throat cancer, John says he spent a lot of time worrying whether he would ever sing again. And wondering if he would still sound like himself if he did. Once his treatments were wrapped up, John tentatively began trying to sing. Little by little he found his voice again – as well as his joy.
“There’s an old gospel song that I like to turn to: This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it,” John shares, singing a tune he’s sung all his life. “Whether it’s a beautiful sunny day outside or we’ve got cancer, still let us rejoice and be glad in it. Whatever it is. That’s sort of how I’ve been trying to live my life.”
As he endured what he says were some of the most difficult days he’s ever faced, John relied on his faith and his family to help him through. Now that he’s on the other side, he’s releasing a new album, fittingly called Find My Joy. The album is a deeply personal one for John, featuring a collection of hymns that spoke to him as he went through cancer treatment, as well as a few new songs that he says touch his heart and soul. It’s the first recording he’s made since being diagnosed with throat cancer and staring down the threat of losing his voice.
“I thought that Thomas Road [the album John was recording at the time of his diagnosis] was going to be my last album, and here we are releasing Find My Joy,” John shares, his voice swelling with gratitude. “And I think it’s one of the best pieces of work I’ve ever done. I can’t wait for people to hear it.”
Cover image by Just Kaicles.