Cynthia Burt sat at the grand piano in the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion lobby, her fingers skillfully manipulating the keys, much like a surgeon manipulates a scalpel.
Burt isn’t just any piano player. She’s a semi-professional who has accompanied vocal groups and musicals.
And she’s not just any Lemmen-Holton visitor. She’s a patient.
Diagnosed with brain cancer in December, Burt often spends an hour or so performing on the Yamaha grand piano after chemotherapy treatments or doctor appointments.
As Burt played “All is Well with my Soul” on a recent Monday morning, people stopped in the lobby to listen—a woman with a bald head, a man with a cane, a woman with a scarf over her head.
Two sisters, Rosalie McLenithan and Joanne Walrad, both of Beulah, Michigan, also paused.
“It’s very soothing,” McLenithan said. “When you have a lot of anxiety, this music helps.”
“I love it,” she said. “I could sit here all day and listen to it. She’s good. Very good.”
The song touched people. Including Burt.
“Some music moves me to tears when I play,” she said. “This is my therapy.”
She grabbed another piano book and launched into “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the thumb and pinkie on her left hand thumping out bold bass notes.
Those in the lobby applauded her playing, including Denny DeVries, of Wayland, Michigan.
“I like to sit and listen to the piano music,” DeVries said. “It’s just so relaxing to listen to the piano. I just enjoy everything that they play.”
Burt played a couple more selections, then packed up her music books and headed upstairs for her oncology appointment.
She had an MRI earlier in the morning. She anxiously awaited the results. Had her brain tumor grown? Was she going to die? She wondered this, and more.
As she and her husband, David, waited for Todd Vitaz, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group neurosurgeon, to enter the exam room, Burt talked of her intro to a song-filled life.
“I started lessons when I was 5 years old,” said the retired software engineer and cyber security specialist. “I heard a jingle on a television commercial and went over to the piano and learned how to play it. My parents provided training in classical music. My favorite composer is Chopin.”
Burt grew up in Gross Pointe, Michigan. Her first gig? Playing hymns at age 11 for Sunday school.
“I accompanied a 200-member choir in high school,” she said. “I also sang in a select choir.”
At the University of Michigan, she played for pleasure. She met David in an honor’s math class.
“I passed the class because of her help,” David said, laughing.
When she and David moved to Australia to teach high school, she added Gershwin and Brubeck to her repertoire.
“They paid your way if you were teachers,” Burt said. “We were there for two years. The huntsman spiders were so large they would cast shadows.”
Burt lived an exciting life of traveling, raising children, working as a software engineer and playing piano. While working, she accompanied a male choir for seven years.
‘It was uncontrollable’
All was well. Until last winter. She experienced severe back pain, numb toes and weakness in her left leg.
On Dec. 4, during a meeting at her church in Ludington, Michigan, Burt’s left leg started seizing.
“It was uncontrollable,” Burt said. “I was in a meeting with two other ladies. I remember pondering, ‘Should I interrupt?’ The decision came quickly. ‘Excuse me ladies, I’m having a medical emergency.’ One called the ambulance and another stood outside, waiting for it to arrive. One took off my shoe because my foot was going crazy.”
The ambulance transported her to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Initial MRI scans suggested a stroke. But something else lurked in the images.
Then came the booming bass note, the discord, incongruent lyrics to her ears—she had brain cancer.
“On the 13th they gave me the news that I have a rare tumor called anaplastic astrocytoma, a grade III glioma,” Burt said. “John McCain has a grade IV glioma, more commonly called a glioblastoma.”
The tumor is ruthless. It preys on her brain cells. It creates its own blood vessels to keep itself strong, vibrant and growing.
“What I have is a cancer that is attacking specific cells in the brain,” she said. “For me, it’s on the right side so it affects the use of my left side. I lost the use of my left leg. My left arm, I noticed that I didn’t really know where my arm was in relation to space.”
Her greatest fear? Not being able to play the piano.
“Playing the piano has been, and is now, a meaningful part of my life,” Burt said. “When I found out I had lost my sense of space for my left arm, I said, ‘Ah, if I get on a piano I can see how much damage has been done. I can select certain pieces of music as therapy.”
In mid-December, Dr. Vitaz performed an awake craniotomy.
“We took out a piece of skull, we woke her up completely so she was talking and moving, then we took the tumor out while we were monitoring her,” Dr. Vitaz said. “She started having some weakness during the operation. That’s when we decided to stop. We removed 50 to 60 percent of the tumor.”
Following surgery, Burt transferred to Spectrum Health Inpatient Rehabilitation at Blodgett Hospital.
“The staff said, ‘We have a keyboard; we’ll bring it to your room,” Burt said. “I was so excited. I’m crying now just thinking about it. It gave me an opportunity.”
David brought her piano books from home.
“I started playing and I could see where I needed improvement,” she said. “I could tell that there was loss.”
But from the loss, Burt gained. She practiced Scott Joplin rags.
“The left hand jumps from way down low on the keyboard to center, then jumps back down,” she said. “It was excellent therapy. Each day, I could see improvement in my arm and hand coordination.”
There were other key benefits to playing the keyboard. If she woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep, she would softly play.
Often, the music harmonized with her soul, especially the melancholy Chopin notes.
“When you’re diagnosed with something like that and they say it’s treatable but not curable, you start mourning,” Burt said. “I was able to use my music to express my grief. I often played Chopin’s melancholy Prelude in E minor to play and weep. That was so helpful for me. It was my own grief counselor, whenever I wanted it.”
Shortly before Christmas, she returned home. In January, she started oral chemotherapy and radiation at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.
Sharing her talents
“I heard somebody playing the grand piano,” Burt said. “I went up and complimented them.”
That’s when she learned that the pianists are volunteers. She signed up.
“When I’d go in for radiation I would sit down and play for about an hour,” she said. “The music was not only my therapy, it gave me an opportunity to practice and play and it touched a lot of people at the pavilion.”
On this day, her music touched many.
And, later, as she sat in the exam room, she knew the results of her morning MRI would either be an upbeat, happy tune, or a somber sonnet.
“I want to know how you’re doing,” Dr. Vitaz said as he entered the room.
“It’s slow, it’s very slow,” Burt told him. “I’m trying to regain my strength and mobility. I walk around barefoot to try to get my feet back sensing.”
Dr. Vitaz sat down at the computer.
“Let me pull up your MRI,” he said. “Fifty percent of the cells were actively dividing when we took the tumor out. It’s possible the whole hot spot was taken out surgically and what’s left is less aggressive. I do not think that your tumor is growing through the treatments.”
The tumor started at 4-by-3-by-4 centimeters.
Dr. Vitaz studied the MRI on the screen.
“It looks great,” he announced while viewing a tumor that had decreased in size by about 75 percent. “Your tumor is melting away.”
“Praise God,” Burt said. “What do you think of my prognosis? Three years? Five years?”
“No one knows,” Dr. Vitaz said. “Every patient is different. You’re doing well, but there are certain questions that we just can’t answer. I could give you statistics based on hundreds of patients, but you’re an individual. I know it creates a lot of unknowns and it means living from MRI to MRI. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best and enjoy every day.”
Burt follows that advice. Every day.
She’s grateful—for Dr. Vitaz, for her Spectrum Health nurse navigator Dawn Klem, for her tumor shrinking, and for her health growing. There are so many she wishes to thank.
Burt is now home, continuing her treatments and completing her book. The title: “Divining Moments.”
She believes in those moments. She’s lived them. She’s living them still.
“There are times in our lives when we just know ‘that was not a coincidence’—the probability of that happening is so small there must be something greater working in our lives than what we know,” she said.