Drummer Gary Cornelius has been a professional musician for almost 50 years, but he didn’t get to perform at his fantasy venue — the Grand Ole Opry — until this spring. A lung cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2013 almost derailed his career.
Now the drummer is back in the groove — and in remission.
“The Opry was always a dream of mine,” Gary says. “I always hoped one day I’d get to play it. Now, I just want to keep playing, live a good life and stay healthy. Considering all I've been through, that's all the motivation I need right now.”
Friendly advice leads to MD Anderson
The drummer came to MD Anderson at the urging of his employer: country music legend Mickey Gilley.
“I started feeling pain in the upper part of my chest, and my doctor said, ‘Let’s take an X-ray and see what it says.’ After I was diagnosed, he got me one of the best surgeons in the region, but I was a little late to the game,” Gary says. “The cancer cells had already attached themselves to my chest wall, so he couldn’t remove the tumor.”
After Gary’s initial surgery, Mickey told the drummer, “You need to go to MD Anderson. They’re the mecca.”
Combination of therapies delivers one-two punch
Once Gary arrived in Houston, Katherine Pisters, M.D., and Zhongxing Liao, M.D., prescribed simultaneous courses of chemotherapy and proton therapy.
Over the course of six weeks, Gary received 30 proton therapy treatments, but the chemotherapy had to be discontinued after he suffered a mild heart attack.
“I didn’t even know I’d had one,” he says. “I just woke up one day and felt terrible. I had a fever, so they immediately put me in the ICU.”
Gary also had a heart defect corrected that he didn’t even know about before coming to MD Anderson.
“I was told it was a high priority to replace the atrial valve,” Gary says. “After the surgery, the doctor told me that I would have not lived another six months if I hadn't.”
Dealing with side effects
Another challenge Gary faced during treatment was a serious loss of appetite. Nausea dogged him constantly, preventing him from eating all his favorite foods and limiting his diet to the three things he could tolerate: mandarin oranges, nutritional drinks and oatmeal with lots of butter.
“I was probably one of the pickiest eaters you’ve ever seen,” Gary says. “My wife bought those tiny little oranges by the dozen. I ate the devil out of those things.”
Positive attitude is everything
What helped Gary keep going were the support of his wife, Angie, and a positive attitude.
“It was not a very good time, but I think that really helped me,” Gary says. “Those treatments put me through the wringer, but I tried my best to be a fighter. I was in a lot of pain from that initial lung surgery. I had to sleep sitting up in a chair sometimes, and for a while there, I didn’t like the dark either. But I got past it. I’ve been a night owl all my life. That’s what musicians are, pretty much.”
Trust your intuition
Gary has some advice for anyone who has noticed something a little “off” about their body, but is still trying to decide whether to see a doctor.
“Act on it now,” the drummer says. “If something doesn’t feel right, especially if it is internal, don’t waste too much time. If you look down and see the rear tire on your car is low on air, are you going to keep on driving it or take it to the repairman? If something feels funny, it’s worth a doctor’s visit.”