You can’t be a country crooner without strong vocal chords.
Thus, for Ken Peltier, the lead vocal in the Mat-Su Valley’s Ken Peltier band, being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2009 wasn’t just a health threat, it was a career threat, as well.
“Singing was no longer just a hobby for me at that time,” Peltier said. “Throat cancer is just not all that handy for a singer.”
His throat had hurt for quite some time before he sought medical help.
He had just opened for country music superstars Montgomery Gentry at Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena and was headed to Nashville, Tennessee, to record an album. He didn’t have time for medical detours.
So, he sort of ignored the sore throat and did what he could to soothe it while recording the album.
Then, when he got home to Alaska, instead of seeing a doctor, he went deer hunting with his family.
He chuckles a bit about being a typical invincible guy.
However ... “It was getting difficult to swallow,” he said. “I knew something was wrong, but I also really didn’t want to deal with it.”
Finally, the pain won out. He felt a lump in his throat that he knew shouldn’t be there. He sought medical treatment but his regular MD sent him to specialists.
It was Dr. Jennifer Wingate in Anchorage who performed needle aspirations to determine the awful truth: Peltier had stage four throat cancer.
This was the makings of a damn sad country song.
Peltier had 47 infected lymph nodes from his jawline to his collarbone and to the front of his throat on the left side. Wingate removed the nodes, but Peltier needed massive radiation doses.
Again, as he says, “not handy for a singer.”
He was referred to Dr. Richard Chung, a radiation oncologist with the Anchorage Radiation Therapy Center.
But before beginning treatment under Chun’s direction, Peltier wanted a second opinion. So, he went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville where one of the nation’s most comprehensive cancer treatment centers is located.
Much to his surprise – and relief – the doctors at Vanderbilt sent him back to Alaska.
The physician he saw at Vanderbilt had worked with Chung at Stanford.
“He told me I had the best of the best right in Alaska,” Peltier said.
Thus began a process Peltier wouldn’t wish on anyone: Two months of radiation five days per week.
Radiation for throat cancer didn’t just make Petlier – a longtime heavy equipment operator – sick, tired and weak. It also seriously ‘creeped him out,’ as he describes.
Radiation of the throat area requires that a form-fitting mask to be made to protect the face.
“That mask is for every day of your radiation,” Peltier said. “Your head is pinned down to the table with that mask so that you cannot move. It is a little creepy and very claustrophobic.”
He describes the mask to be similar to a hockey mask – except with smaller holes. Plus, one is generally moving when wearing a hockey mask; not the case with the radiation mask.
Peltier’s brother is a state trooper and taught him some breathing techniques to help him remain calm while essentially pinned to a table and having radiation applied to his throat.
By the fourth week of treatment – only halfway through the entire process – Peltier was in a lot of pain.
There was nothing he could put on the burns being created by the radiation. His only relief was cooling packs on the back of his neck.
Pain pills were offered.
He turned them away.
He didn’t want his then young children to see their father “in a zombie state” on pain medication.
“I want to lead by example,” he said. “I wanted to show my kids that you can get through without.”
Peltier said his heart breaks watching the opioid epidemic. He understands that injuries occur and that sometimes pain medications are necessary. He also believes there is far too much abuse of painkillers and he hopes others draw strength from his journey through what he describes as excruciating pain without becoming an addict.
The frustrating part about radiation is the fact that even when a patient has completed treatment and is no longer going under the laser day-in and day-out, the radiation continues to burn.
Peltier likens it to pulling a steak off the barbecue grill.
“You know that steak is still cooking even though it has been removed from the heat,” he said. “That is what happened to my throat.”
It wasn’t until week 11 since his first dose of radiation that Peltier began to feel some relief from the intense burning.
He was exhausted. He described himself as mentally beat down. The family’s finances were drained.
Family and friends brought food over to the house during his radiation treatment. He was grateful that it helped his wife and children. But, he couldn’t consume any of it. The smell just made him nauseous. Eventually, his meals were taken in through a straw. As his throat healed, he learned to swallow again. Then he learned to chew again.
There wasn’t much satisfaction in eating.
Nothing tasted as it used to.
Radiation messes with one’s taste buds.
It was a serious bummer for a guy who was craving a cheeseburger, or a steak.
Throughout his treatment, the question of whether he’d be able to sing again was sort of the elephant in the room. His doctors used specialized methods developed to protect the vocal chords of more famous singers. Yet, it simply was an unknown.
After radiation treatment ended and for weeks later, just talking less alone singing was a struggle.
He took baby steps.
His loyal fan base kept encouraging him to regain his strength; to let his voice recover.
Alaska State Fair time was approaching. Folks were hoping Peltier could be back on stage.
“It was very surreal,” Peltier said. “The support was unbelievable.”
It was as if he was living the country music song, “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” each time he took the stage.
“It still chokes me up on stage,” he said. “It never fails. I will look out there at the crowd and I just cannot believe that I am still doing this after all of that. I fought through the worst disease a singer can get and I am still headlining shows and helping raise funds for charities through performance and people still come to hear me and the band.”
His sets aren’t as long as they used to be. He has to pace himself. But Peltier played long sets to begin with. He lost a bit of timbre in his voice, he said, but gained some more range on the low end of the scale. He has to work harder to keep pitch to hold certain notes, he said.
His fans can hardly tell he’s lost any of his crooning ability. They’re still up dancing to the music, still singing along.
His band is a regular feature at the Matanuska Brewing Company in Midtown Anchorage. He and Hobo Jim, Alaska’s Official State Balladeer, are headed overseas together later this year to entertain the troops stationed in Qatar. He regularly plays gigs to benefit cancer-related groups.
He’s no longer operating heavy equipment as a day job. He launched a real estate career a few years back.
He plans to record again. There’s talk that Aaron Tippin might work with him on a new album.
The new album’s content will reflect how he has grown and matured through the cancer treatment.
“Life molds you,” he said. “Your perspective on things changes.”
Asked what he hoped others would gain from his experience, Peltier said, “Don’t lay down (when life gets tough). I tell people that all the time.”
Learn more about The Ken Peltier Band online at www.kenpeltierband.com/the-band#!.