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Singer relies on positive attitude, U-M team after palate cancer diagnosis

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After being diagnosed with cancers of the palate and thyroid one after another, professional singer Jerry Garcia knew he was going to have to risk his career in order to save his health and family life.

With surgery recommended for both tumors, Garcia knew at every turn that he might have to take his musical ministry in another direction if surgical complications made him no longer able to sing in the caliber he’d built a career on. Instead, Jerry credits the quality of his recent album – he calls it the best he’s ever sung – to the surgeries and experts he saw at the U-M Health System.

“I came out of this unscathed with no vocal cord damage whatsoever,” Garcia said. “It’s the power of a strong positive attitude.”

‘I had a lot of faith’

Garcia had two outpatient surgeries on his palate many years ago, thinking the cancer was gone, but recently felt like something might be wrong. Garcia came to U-M for a second opinion, and head and neck surgeon Kelly Malloy, MD, found more cancer in the upper left part of the roof of his mouth.

Kelly Michele Malloy, MD, FACS

Kelly Michele Malloy, MD, FACS

“When Dr. Malloy got ahold of me, she did it right!” Garcia said. “I had a lot of faith going into all of this that everything was going to be OK. My main concern was I just wanted to continue to be my kids’ dad and my wife’s husband.”

The process was long, though, and at times stressful.

“This is someone whose livelihood depends on his ability to professionally use his voice,” Malloy said. “Jerry had concerns about maintaining his teeth, maintaining his palate and getting good closure between the nose and the mouth.”

Jeffrey Rodney, DMD, joined Malloy in caring for Jerry, because removing the cancer created a hole in his palate. The hole makes your voice muffled and changes the pressure in your mouth and nasal area.

Right after the hole in Jerry’s palate was created, Dr. Rodney built and installed a prosthesis called an obturator in the operating room. The prosthesis is like a synthetic palate in his mouth.

“He can eat and drink and pursue his passion in singing,” Rodney said. “These procedures impact the quality of life of my patients, so it’s very rewarding.”

RODNEY_Jeffery4x5

Jeffrey Rodney, DMD

Another hurdle to overcome

Garcia wears his obturator every day, and strengthened his vocal cords to get back to singing. However, as life returned to normal he found out he also has thyroid cancer.

“Not only were we changing Jerry’s oral cavity structure, but we also performed thyroid surgery which put his voice box function at potential risk,” Malloy said.

Garcia came to each visit with laminated photos of his family: Wife Sarah, and children Kathryn, Emmilee, Andrew and Jacob, all special needs children he and Sarah adopted.

“You know he’s a faithful guy, but he’s also just an incredibly positive guy,” Malloy said.

An audiologist joins Dr. Malloy in the operating room, too, to monitor the important nerves of the voice box during surgery and confirm function at the end of the case.

‘You can tell the difference’

While there were significant risks to his voice and his livelihood, Jerry actually finds he sings better since his surgeries.

“It took some time for me to strengthen my vocals again, and learn how to project, but because of the adjustments I’ve had to make I actually sound better and more powerful,” Garcia said. “You can definitely tell the difference.”

Dr. Rodney actually taped Jerry singing with and without his obturator in his office, making a real-world lesson jump out of the textbook for his dental students.

“The students are learning about cases they wouldn’t see in a suburban dental practice,” Rodney said. “Most dentists in the U.S. are not familiar with maxillofacial prostheses including obturators.”

Jerry Garcia is now on tour across the country, with California, Texas and Alabama on the docket in the next few weeks. He’ll return to Michigan for Nov. 22 concerts in both Adrian and Fairfield.

“I’m singing better than I ever have,” Garcia said. “My family and I had faith going into all of this that everything was going to be OK.”


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Kelly Michele Malloy, MD, FACS is assistant professor of Otolaryngology- Head and Neck Surgery at the U-M Health System. She earned her medical degree from Jefferson Medical College, completed residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, followed by a fellowship in head and neck surgical oncology and microvascular reconstruction here at the U-M Health System. Malloy’s clinical interests include head and neck cancer surgery, head and neck skin cancer, sentinel lymph node biopsy, salivary gland tumors, thyroid and parathyroid surgery, microvascular free tissue transfer, transoral robotic surgery (TORS) and mucosal malignancies of the upper aerodigestive tract.

Jeffrey Rodney, DMD, clinical assistant professor of dentistry in the Department of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery, teaches in the prosthodontic clinic and is one of only two full-time practicing maxillofacial prosthodontists in the state. After an undergraduate career at the University of Michigan, he earned his DMD degree at the University of Pennsylvania, completed a residency in prosthodontics at Rutgers and pursued a fellowship at UCLA. Dr. Rodney worked as a specialist in private practice for over 20 years before joining the School of Dentistry and the U-M Health System.