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Peter Tork's Cancer, In His Own Words

(Photo: Ivan Iannoli)

My blog last week about musician Peter Tork's taking his current battle with a rare form of cancer to the pages of Facebook drew passionate responses from readers, many of whom thought I'd been unfair to Mr. Tork. So I invited Tork (my favorite former Monkee) to write about his experience with cancer and his decision to talk about it on Facebook for The Checkup. Here's what he had to say.

CORRECTION: Peter Tork has had only had one course of radiation, which he is currently in the midst of. This blog entry incorrectly stated that he had had two courses.

By Peter Tork

Late last year, after a few months of my not swallowing in a normal way, a friend mentioned that my voice sounded funny, kind of squawky and nasal. I'd meant to get it checked out, but her observation pushed me to doing something about it sooner rather than later. I went to an ear, nose and throat doctor, who sprayed my nostrils with anesthetic and sent a length of fiber-optic cable up my nose and down my throat. He came back with bad news. There was a growth on the lower region of my tongue. He suspected squamous cell carcinoma.

I don't count myself as being afraid to die, but the news hit me like a fist to the chest.

A subsequent biopsy and pathology exam showed that I had adenoid cystic carcinoma.

Adenoid cystic carcinoma, ACC to the cognoscenti, is a relatively rare cancer, usually occurring in the salivary glands. Mine occurred on the lower part of my tongue; that's even rarer. I wound up in New York at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where one Dr. Jatin Shah told me I should get surgery as soon as possible. I thought about it a second and said I wasn't doing anything that afternoon....

Dr. Shah laughed and amended: as soon as practicable. That turned out to be the following Wednesday, which was March 4. I woke up from that surgery with another tube up my nose and down my throat -- this one for feeding me. About three months later I began a follow-up course of radiation at a high-tech hospital in Boston, where they rev up a cyclotron and pipe protons down the hall and through a giant metal tube into my throat. (Remember electrons, neutrons and protons? Those.)

My friend Therra Gwyn, who is also my editor and publicist, suggested that if the news of my cancer seeped out without my having a say in it, it would most likely get so distorted that there'd be 30 stories out there, none of them with more than a tangential relationship with the actuality. Better she said -- and I agreed -- to tell the story myself, as best I could. Besides making sure the record was straight, telling the story out loud on a Web site and Facebook page might help the world (or that part of it that was interested) relax some fears about cancer in general and might boost attention to adenoid cystic carcinoma in particular. Also, it might just help me keep a right-sized attitude about life and myself. Otherwise, you know, it'd be like: I'm a celebrity, get me offa this planet! Can't have that.

As of this writing, I'm just beginning to feel the effects of the second course of radiation, a bit of soreness on the tongue, some unpleasant effects when swallowing. So far, not too bad.

I have a couple of performance dates lined up, which I've opted not to cancel. I know I'm taking a chance here, because one of the side effects of the radiation is supposed to be hoarseness. The radiologist told me, "Well, you play guitar and you sing. Perhaps you won't sing, but maybe you'll play guitar a lot more."

I recovered very quickly after my surgery, and I've been hoping that my better-than-average constitution will keep the worst effects of radiation at bay. My voice and energy still seem to be in decent shape, so maybe I can pull these gigs off after all. Just in case, though, I've invited some friends to join me, including my friend Lauren, a world-class slide guitar player. People will be so dazzled by her that they won't notice whether I'm doing well. I'm also bringing in belly dancers, and I'm expecting a fly-over by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Maybe elephants.

I mean to do those shows.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  July 1, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cancer  
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Bravo, Peter, for not just taking on cancer in such a matter of fact, cheerful, manner but also being unafraid to wade through public opinion, fears and sometimes aversion to talking about such a personal struggle with a disease. In sharing your journey you extend us the privilege to walk with you and share support along the way. Kudos, Jennifer LaRue Huget and the WaPost for giving Peter Tork a guest spot to write about his life with cancer. It's a subject that touches so many lives across the globe. As Peter recovers we all look forward to celebrating that part of his journey as well. Every cancer patient I know, every cancer survivor I meet has taught me something valuable. I have much praise for all the public, and private, cancer warriors. Bless them all.

Posted by: TheCatGwy | July 1, 2009 7:42 AM | Report abuse

Elephants...I like it!

Peter, you are undergoing such a tremendous experience, and to share it with the world and with those of us who are your loyal fans...there are no words that can express the thanks that we feel that you have included us on this journey of yours.

Our thoughts, prayers and love are for you, dear Peter...

Posted by: glorificus | July 1, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Thank you Peter. We love that you take matters into your own hands, put out your own truth, not allowing the media to take the truth and bend it to make it more sensational. We are lucky that you wish to share with your fans and appreciate you very much. Please know we are all out here, cheering you on, and trying our best to give back to you all you given us over the years.

Posted by: meacham652 | July 1, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Peter, you inspire me. As I fight my own battle with cancer, I'm given hope by your continued ability to go on with every day as if this is just a small bump in the road. Thank you for that. In all my years of being a fan, of wanting to somehow have a common link to those I admired so much, cancer is not the link I wanted. But I'm stronger because of it, and you are too. God gave us this "gift" for a reason, and you have found what that reason is. Thank you.

Posted by: leihei | July 1, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for writing this, Peter.
I'm so glad you chose to tell your story on your own, instead of letting the media twist it into something much worse! I'm also glad that you're keeping so positive, and continuing to tour.
Keep strong!!

Posted by: Nessa193 | July 1, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Perfect tone, just enough detail and, most ofall, grace.

Thanks for doing this, it made me care and it gives me inspiration for next time I face adversity. I'll be following on FB.

(btw, a long time ago you and your three mates played Shreveport, La. It was my first rock concert. I went back to my dormant guitar and have been playing ever since...even a new CD, "Lullabies & Cautionary Tales", by E. Christina Herr. Thanks from way back when.)


Posted by: mhrowell | July 1, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Peter for your reply to the recent Washington Post article. I appreciate your sharing your disease and spreading awareness. It helps many people. If it weren't for people who use their fame for the common good, many cancer victims would be left in the dark with feelings of isolation and hopelessness. The fly-over by the Royal Canadian Air Force sounds cool as well as the belly dancers, however watch out for elephants, they aren't meant to become domesticated.
Hope on as you say,
Julia Baker

Posted by: decolores33 | July 1, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

God bless you Peter. You are an inspiration to many and I wish you the speediest and best possible recovery. Keep on rockin' man.

Posted by: JKJ88 | July 1, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Peter, you are a constant source of hope, strength, wit and wisdom. It takes great courage to fight cancer, whether it be publicly or privately. Together we have experienced both highs and lows, but I believe that the best is yet to come for you. Before you know it, the radiation treatments will be a mere memory, as will the cancer. Your indomitable spirit inspires me to do great things, and I love and admire you so very much. Thank you for letting us accompany you on your journey.

Posted by: tasteofgeorgia | July 1, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

It could be argued that Peter Tork's musical legacy played a significant factor in his miraculous recovery from his illness. Tork not only pursued his art from an academic perspective (being a diligent student of both the keyboards and bass), but he was from the onset proactive in asserting and maintaining creative autonomy with respect to his artistic vision. Countless artists who followed in his wake owe Tork and his Monkees bandmates an enormous debt of gratitude for their pioneering endeavors in that respect.

It is obvious by the circumstances of his current situation that he continues to exercise such discipline in his life today. That said, it is obvious from his optimistic perspective that his academic reasoning has also been enhanced by faith, as the circumstances of his healing supersede the parameters of conventional medical procedure.

In other words, he is blessed! In turn, he has been a blessing and inspiration to countless others for the past 43 years. May his recovery be a speedy one.

Posted by: MikeBlitzMag | July 1, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Beautifully done Peter! Kudos to the Post for allowing you to speak. I'll be at those upcoming gigs and I can't wait! :-)

Posted by: SueW | July 1, 2009 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Peter, you are an absolute inspiration. To be able to deal with your situation with such a delightful mix of candor and humor is beyond admirable. Thank you for sharing your journey and allowing us to come for the ride.

With love, hope and best wishes,


Posted by: LallenFL | July 1, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Wonderful, Peter! I'm so glad all the folks in your native city have this chance to experience and enjoy the gifted, warm, generous, thoughtful, and humorous man I have always admired so much. Thanks to the Post for giving Peter Tork this guest spot--he makes very well his pretty consistent message that community, wherever you find it, is vital on all journeys in the human experience (cancer or others), that it is wherever you find it (FB or elsewhere), and you can't have it unless you put yourself out there for folks to find you.

Posted by: tabascocat2 | July 2, 2009 8:08 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for sharing this with us all, Peter. It's always best to get the truth from the source and not allow the media to spin things out of control.

I have always admired your candor, your humor, your generousity of spirit and your intellect. Now that you have shared your journey from diagnosis to recovery from your cancer, I appreciate you even more.

My mind's eye can see all the extraneous activities going on around you during your upcoming shows should you feel the need for belly dancers & elephants (I wonder if someone could teach the elephants to belly dance?).

I am glad you are well on the road to recovery; know that although I can't make it to any of the shows in person, I will be there with you in spirit.

Hugs & Love,

Gloria Lynn

Posted by: GloriaLynn | July 2, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Peter, your courage, strength, hope and willingness to share is inspiring! Thank you for writing the blog and for continuing to share your music, and thank you to WaPo for publishing this.

Posted by: Stillwaters1 | July 2, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Peter, your words here remind me yet again of just why and how much I love you! I don't belong to Facebook because I personally am not comfortable giving out too much personal information about myself online, but I applaud your choice to use your own Facebook account in an effort to help others, and I'm so glad that you're receiving so much support from others in return! Please know that I support you too and wish you a speedy and complete recovery, the best possible reaction to all your treatments, and a swift return to full health and vigor. I do my best to keep up with your news through other means, and I've been praying for you regularly ever since I first heard about your illness. Hold on to that positive energy and upbeat attitude, stay strong, and Hope On!

--With Love, from a charter member of your "beloved mob."

Posted by: savethetpc | July 2, 2009 10:43 PM | Report abuse

I also would like to thank the Washington Post and blogger, Jennifer LaRue Huget for allowing Peter to voice his own feelings on this subject so eloquently in this blog. I did not have a chance to respond to last week's blog which questioned Peter's use of Facebook to discuss his illness, but I'm glad to say that it no longer seems necessary for me to do so. Thank you again for being so open to others' opinions and for allowing Peter this opportunity to speak for himself.

Posted by: savethetpc | July 2, 2009 10:50 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Peter for being so candid about your disease and so sharing of your life. It is an inspiration to everyone with problems in their life to hear your positve attitude in the face of adversity! Love and hugs to you!

Posted by: kg_benner | July 3, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

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