Two-time survivor tackles life after cancer one song at a time

February 07, 2022
Vance Kennedy (front center) still finds time to sing with his band Vance Kennedy & Barksdale Station. Photo provided

The stage may look different these days, but the music is all the same for 73-year-old Vance Kennedy. He embodies the popular saying “The show must go on.” Kennedy has battled lymphoma and leukemia and had a stem cell transplant at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, yet he hasn’t missed a beat as the lead singer of the soul band Vance Kennedy & Barksdale Station.

“Neil Young once wrote that it was better to burn out than fade away, and I take that seriously. Music will be a part of my life until my last breath,” Kennedy said.

There are no shows anymore, but that doesn’t matter to Kennedy. He’s making the most of life after cancer, including writing and recording the song “Silk On Glass” that climbed to the Top 10 on the beach charts in 2015. His love for music dates back to February 1964 after seeing the Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The next morning, Kennedy had already formed a band.

Over the decades, Kennedy has performed at more shows and festivals than he can remember. These days, the highlight of his week is getting together with his band for what he calls jam sessions. “Truthfully, if I never play out in public again, I’ll be fine as long as I can keep those jam sessions.”

Kennedy hails from the town of Cross Hill, South Carolina, which boasts a population of just over 500. It was here that Kennedy and his wife of 18 years settled down on a sprawling 120-acre farm to garden and raise donkeys, goats and horses.

Farming and music have long been Kennedy’s two passions in life. But in 2010, life as he knew it changed. Kennedy had a biopsy performed after a doctor visit revealed swollen lymph nodes. Shortly after, Kennedy received the news – he had stage 4 lymphoma.

“My doctor up in Greenwood, South Carolina, told me I would need chemotherapy,” he said. “I was told that the chemotherapy was going to be tough. They called it the red devil. But I thought I handled it well. I’ve had friends who have had cancer and quit doing their chemotherapy because their reactions were so bad.”

Aside from feeling weak, Kennedy said he made it through eight rounds of chemotherapy treatments over the course of 24 weeks. Doctors told him there was a chance the chemotherapy could cause leukemia down the road.

In 2017, that chance of leukemia became a reality.

“I was in the garden, and my heart started thumping. I thought I was having heat stroke because it was in July. I sat down for a few minutes, and the second I sat down, I was back to normal. I got back up, and the same feeling happened again. That’s when I decided to go back in the house and made an appointment to see my doctor.”

He needed specialized care to treat the leukemia, which is why he was transferred to experts at Hollings, including Brian Hess, M.D., a hematologist and oncologist, and the now retired Robert Stuart, M.D.

On July 14, 2017, Kennedy checked in to Ashley River Tower and stayed there for the next four weeks. He said he was impressed with the care he received at MUSC from the very beginning.

Kennedy explained that he holds competence and focus in high esteem and found that his team exemplified both. “When I got to MUSC and Hollings and met my team, they were so thorough in their care. I can’t say enough good things,” Kennedy said.

Frequent appointments at MUSC and Hollings filled Kennedy’s days over the next few months. In November 2017, he underwent a stem cell transplant at the age of 69, and afterward, he was hospitalized at MUSC for a month as he recovered. While hospitalized, he turned to his love of music to pass the time. Little did he know that his nurses and other staff would join him for hospital jam sessions.

“I didn’t meet a person I didn’t like while I was at MUSC all those months,” he said. “A couple of the nurses would come visit me, and we’d sing songs and have a good ol’ time. It was almost like a party for me.”

Kennedy’s bouts with cancer haven’t come without complications. He’s developed eye issues and has lost strength and endurance. He no longer is able to be around animals or work on the farm, but music – that’s still a constant in his life.

He said he hopes his story encourages others that there can be life after cancer. He tackles every day, and every song, just the same – one verse at a time.

“I’ve always been the kind of person to figure out a way to get it done,” he said. “I have great faith and believe whatever will be, will be. I’m just thankful for another day.”