An Opera Singer's Facial Cancer
And Life Transposed
By Kathleen Watt
REARRANGED tells of leaving the operatic stage for a starring role opposite the Big C. Bone cancer in my cheek ended my career as an opera singer and brought me face to face with mortality, disfigurement, the meaning and uses of beauty—and a lot of left over pieces.
A small corps of medical elites convened to excoriate my diseased bones with surgical wizardry and lethal toxins, and stayed on to restore me to myself through a brutal alchemy of kindness and titanium screws.
REARRANGED is a tale of letting go to hold on, of putting old pieces to new uses—and of the unlikely arrangements that make it all work out.
Read an EXCERPT:
Taking a Measurement
I FOUND THE BEST WAY TO TAKE MY cancer seriously was to carry it lightly. I would try to “be myself” over many protracted days, weeks, even months. After all, the whole immersive experience had come complete with diverting characters, real and imaginary, in set pieces of their own...
Praise for REARRANGED
• Publishers Weekly •
A gripping portrayal, both heart-breaking and uplifting
In this heart-wrenching debut, [one-time] New York opera singer Kathleen Watt
regales readers with her inspirational story of surviving facial bone cancer. Watt recounts the terrifying procedures that accompanied the removal of a “golf ball-sized” tumor, as well as the extensive facial reconstruction she [endured], with wit and stunning prose, detailing the devastating—and inspiring—ways her life, and face, were “rearranged.” Watt’s sweeping storytelling…ultimately gifts readers with front row seats to her most triumphant performance to date—surviving cancer, and having the strength and courage to relive the harrowing journey within the pages of this story. The end result is both heart-breaking and uplifting and will touch the heart of any readers affected by a life-altering illness.
• KIRKUS REVIEWS •
A heartrending journey recalled with lucidity and poise
Author Kathleen Watt is “... a sharply descriptive writer... unafraid... unapologetically frank... [with] a wry, sometimes self-effacing sense of humor that brings levity to a distressing subject... The result is a finely textured and courageous literary memoir that is inspirational,
and at times, darkly amusing.”
REARRANGED is Kathleen Watt’s riveting and important pathography about her decade-long odyssey of treatment for, and recovery from, osteogenic sarcoma of the jaw... Watt is a gifted story-teller who tells her story with humor and insight ... [and] many lessons for physicians, patients, and caregivers. We learn about Watt’s personal relationships and how they were impacted by years of surgery... We learn how important it is for patients to have functioning support systems... As physicians we need open-ended narratives such as REARRANGED to supplement our narrow professional education. Over three decades of studying illness-narratives [I've found] common themes fall into one of, or a combination of, three narratives: Quest, Chaos or Restitution. Watt’s narrative encompasses all three. I felt privileged to have taken a master class in patient care from Kathleen Watt. Read Dr. Elpern's full review HERE
David Elpern, MD | Dermatologist, Williamstown, MA; Founder of the Online Journal of Community and Person-Centered Healthcare
The medical journey Kathleen Watt endured is harrowing, yet REARRANGED leaves the reader full of hope. It is a testament to remarkable human resilience, beautifully written.
Rosalind Kaplan, MD | Author of The Patient in the White Coat: My Odyssey from Health to Illness and Back; and the memoir Still Healing: A Doctor’s Notes on the Magic and Misery of Life in Medicine (2024, Minerva Rising Press)
Kathleen’s voice in REARRANGED resonated for me in several ways: her New York vernacular, her humor, her generation, her geography and of course her medical tale. As someone who has an unquenchable thirst for medical narratives, this read educated and engaged me for its duration. Kathleen is an inspiration for resilience. Her insights into the world of medicine, doctors and patients, communication, human relations and herself give readers a broad stroke and minute details of a complex medical encounter. Rearranged joins the canon of medical narratives.
Nancy Gross | MA, MMH, Overlook Medical Center, Summit, NJ
REARRANGED An Opera Singer’s Facial Cancer and Life Transposed, by Kathleen Watt, has a great cover illustration, and lists subgenres of narrative and autoethnography. In reviewing the book, I thought of Jo Spence’s photographic record of and reflections on her process with breast cancer and heard Colm Tóibín [speaking of] his experience... Spending several weeks immersed in REARRANGED changed my own response to disfigurement: I no longer look away after a momentary glance. It could be that the very vulnerability Watt conveys is her most important message.
Richenda Power | Member, Medical Journalists’ Association, U.K.
In REARRANGED, Kathleen Watt exposes raw courage in her journey through the Big C. Telling her story in the first person, yet with a third person detachment that allows the reader deeply inside her tortuous diagnosis, interventions, and recovery, Kathleen tells her story with aplomb. While in the depths of her pre-reconstructive surgery period, I was especially struck by her ability to understand how her appearance influenced others, and allowed her to begin accepting her “pirate” appearance. Written from the place of loss, where her opera career was receding into the background, Kathleen’s journey is one of hope. I was captivated by the intensity of a world I know well, though as a medical insider. I was ill-prepared for the intimacy of her journey. Bravo, Kathleen, for sharing your story.
Walt Fritz, PT | Pain Relief Center, Lima, NY; Author of Manual Therapy for Voice and Swallowing - A Person-Centered Approach
Told in sumptuous detail and a never-gone-for-long sense of humor as well as gravity, Kathleen Watt’s REARRANGED is an amazing story of resilience that unfolds at just the right speed. I was magnetized from the first word to the last.
Nathaniel Rosenthalis | Actor, singer, poet; Instructor, NYU
REARRANGED is our collective human story of inexplicably transforming into who you never thought you would be and ultimately becoming who you are meant to be. Kathleen's story is a beautiful agony with a golden thread of love sewn throughout. The suffering that transports you there tells you more about who you are and who your people are, more than joy could ever hope to.
In REARRANGED, writer and former opera singer Kathleen Watt takes us on her extraordinary facial cancer journey—through diagnosis and disfiguring surgery, through loves and lovers gained and lost, with lemonade made from countless lemons. A narrative rife with racy wit, self-deprecating humor, and an eloquence of language befitting grand opera, REARRANGED invites us to bear witness to her battle and ultimate triumph over “the Big C”. Her curative surgery came at the cost of her singing voice, and like any athlete suffering a career-ending injury, she was left with the question, “What do I do now?” A self-admitted imperfect person trapped in a perfect disaster, Kathleen Watt leads us to Hell and back, emerging smiling on the other side.
Matthew D. Garrett, MD, MM | Radiation Oncologist, Former operatic tenor, Juilliard-trained
REARRANGED is a must read. From the moment I began reading REARRANGED, Kathleen Watt’s survival instincts captivated me. The reader will celebrate every small success as Kathleen battles through seemingly insurmountable odds and relentless obstacles. The book is a testimony to the courage of the human spirit. As an international speaker dedicated to discovery of head and neck cancers, I applaud Kathleen’s efforts in bringing awareness to this insidious cancer. Beautifully written and will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever been touched by cancer.
Jo-Anne Jones | International Speaker; CE Leader, Dentistry Today
When opera singer Kathleen Watt discovers a small bump on the roof of her mouth, her life, career, and face shatter into pieces only she can puzzle together again. Cancer; the Big C. Faced with impossible choices, surgeries and surrender, a chance meeting on the subway reveals the gut-wrenching picture of how blessedly normal her life might have been. Humorous and sometimes hallucinated, this singer’s written voice will ring out in the halls of your heart.
Marcia Whitehead | Professional Singer; Vocal Coach; Author of the memoir Botox Me
Kathleen Watt’s narrative memoir reveals her indomitable humanity, indefatigable spirit, and remarkable endurance while receiving and subsequently surviving intensive and radical cancer treatment. She experienced the unimaginable as a professional operatic singer and truly-alive adult—a rare, deeply embedded facial tumor, that would require intensive, life-altering surgery and relentless follow-up care. She authentically and descriptively details what “went well,” and the related feelings of triumph and accomplishment, but also the complications, setbacks, agony and challenging interactions that negatively (and at times, destructively) impacted her experience and permanently changed her life’s path. She has written with transparency, bravery, honesty, and fairness. The rhythm, cadence and artistry of her words embodies her forever-musicianship, and she has deployed her gifted voice in a tour-de-force written performance. Patients, health care professionals and every-day folk alike will benefit greatly from her lessons imparted and her wisdom shared.
Douglas Brandoff, MD, FAAHPM | Attending Physician, Palliative Care Clinic, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Alumnus, Juilliard Pre-College Division (Cello)
For such brutal subject matter, Kathleen has subverted the well-worn tropes of the medical memoir, instead writing a story that trills with candour and authenticity. The writing in and of itself is lyrically evocative, affecting and profoundly moving, while the story is one of true grit, and a flawless example of what it means to be a survivor. At its core, REARRANGED is a story of hope and is a worthy and much needed addition to the canon of medical memoir. REARRANGED is set to become a seminal memoir on not just what it is to have cancer and survive, but what it means to be human.
Carly-Jay Metcalfe | Author of the memoir Breath, coming March 2024 from University of Queensland Press
In REARRANGED, Kathleen Watt meticulously documents her rare bone cancer diagnosis and the painful treatment and facial disfigurement that followed. As a professional opera singer, Watt began treatment with a greater appreciation of the hard palate than most; it was, after all, one of her many instruments. But it’s Watt’s time as a patient that pushes her to a new and intimate relationship with her anatomy—including its limitations, its interdependencies, and its capacity for recovery.
Watt’s memoir joins a magnificent roster of books that explore our complex relationships with our faces: Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy; The Face: A Time Code by Ruth Ozeki; and Look at Me by Jennifer Egan, all come to mind. But where Grealy, a fellow facial cancer survivor, is moody and metaphysical, Watt offers us a gracious, probing, and often hilarious autobiography of the palate—sampling from her irrepressible passion for art and opera, her keen observations about the medical system’s humor and horror, and the abiding love of her friends and family.
Few of us will ever experience a trial quite like Watt’s. But by raising the red velvet curtain on her cancer, Watt offers readers an all-too-rare opportunity to reflect on their own embodiment.
In a sentence too beautiful to be repeated in a mere blurb, Kathleen Watt wonders about the limits of being human. Her story of survival of thirty-plus surgeries that ended her career in opera, including a patient's-eye view of high-tech surgery and of care received from lover, family, and friends, answers her own question. Watt retrieves her voice from the ruins to sing a song she could not have sung before losing it. Brava!
Michael Rowe, MD, PhD | Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry; Director, Citizens Community Collaborative, Yale Department of Psychiatry
Unfolding against a deftly drawn backdrop of 1990s New York City, Kathleen Watt’s gripping memoir, is much more than an account of her long, winding struggle with and eventual steep victory over a deadly disease... Watt’s unforgettable memoir is eloquently written, keenly observed, and intellectually imposing. Yet it reads with the swift pace, dramatic clarity, and enthralling suspense of a page-turner novel. By turns, it may make you think deeply, laugh out loud, tear up, or even flinch. But you can’t look away.
Cori Ellison | Dramaturg; Vocal Arts Faculty, The Juilliard School
Kathleen’s account of her experience with Osteogenic Sarcoma is a very intimate portrayal. And it’s factual. It’s all in there. Anyone going through something like this will absolutely benefit from reading
this beautifully written book.
Peter D. Costantino, MD, FACS | Brain and Spine Surgery of New York (BSSNY)
Kathleen Watt’s courage, energy, curiosity, and sheer engagement with life have carried her through challenges that would be unimaginable—except that her clear, lively prose and precise, fearless medical descriptions make it impossible NOT to imagine her experiences. Candid, unsentimental, and vivid, REARRANGED is an inspiring book on multiple levels.
Rachel Hadas | Professor of Classics, Rutgers University; Award-winning author of more than twenty books of poetry, essays, and translations
Kathleen Watt has turned her harrowing experience as an opera singer diagnosed with facial bone cancer into a story that is fresh, gripping, and also remarkably entertaining. Her voice—smart, funny, and disarmingly forthright—makes this book shine. I find myself in awe of her sheer bravado and resilience in overcoming all odds to share her story and hard-won wisdom with all of us.
Helen Fremont | Award-winning author of national bestsellers The Escape Artist, (Gallery Books, 2020), and After Long Silence, (Delta, 1999)
A rare facial bone cancer derails Kathleen Watt’s life as an opera singer, but with an indomitable spirit, Watt fights back, enduring thirty surgeries and countless rounds of chemotherapy. Watt uncovers a deep well of compassion and support from her family and friends, propelling her forward along her treacherous journey. Enlightened by her experiences, Watt discovers beauty in her life, despite “whatever storms may howl.”
Faith Fuller Wilcox | Award-winning author of Hope Is a Bright Star: A Mother’s Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning to Live Again
I am writing in praise of REARRANGED to testify that a facial-cancer memoir by an opera singer can be a gesamtkunstwerk. Kathleen Watt takes the reader through her vivid, painstaking (literally), occasionally self-mocking, excruciating, manic, ecstatic journey—from the discovery of her affliction, through an incessant procession of consultations, procedures, skin and bone grafts, ICU hallucinations, manic hopes, precipitous free-falls, disfigurements, and rough-edged healing—not to mention, as well, “the rest of life”. Kathleen Watt is an author who pushes through her epic to emerge with resolutions intact; and ever-grateful for her passion, so do we.
What does it mean to be defaced: to have your neck, throat, nose, eye sockets, eyelids, cheeks, tongue, and teeth disfigured? A harrowing account of the toll taken by treatments of osteogenic sarcoma—told by a woman who brings the same grit to the ordeal that she exhibited in becoming a chorister in the Metropolitan Opera Company.
Susan Gubar | Professor Emerita at Indiana University; Author of the “Living with Cancer” column for The New York Times online
Kathleen Watt’s REARRANGED is a beautifully written memoir of her heart-wrenching battle with a rare facial cancer that derailed her singing career and her life. Her astonishing honesty in recounting the details of her journey — both medical and personal — was sometimes horrifying, sometimes humorous, but always truly inspirational.
The narrative is beautifully rendered and illuminates the profound uncertainties a cancer diagnosis engenders. The relationships Kathleen describes are each, in their own way, creative endeavors. REARRANGED honors the fragility, vulnerability and strength of the relationships that nourished her; with loved ones, with her professional caregivers, and to herself and fellow inhabitants in the kingdom of the sick. The memoir is funny, profoundly moving and leaves the reader gasping at the unflinching description of the treatments and setbacks Kathleen endures. It should be a must-read for anybody interested in the fortitude and generosity of the human spirit and how our identities adapt to illness—and for all doctors and professional caregivers.
Mark Gilbert, PhD | Portrait Artist; Professor of Medical Humanities, University of Nebraska, Omaha
In REARRANGED: An Opera Singer’s Facial Cancer and Life Transposed, Kathleen Watt perfectly captures the exhilaration and madcap excitement of life backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, where she was a member of the Extra Chorus. Her writing about her singer's life is so vivid and personal that when she discovers an ominous lump on her gum that turns out to be an aggressive facial cancer, it hits the reader hard. I’m bowled over by Watt’s bravery in having lived to tell this harrowing tale, and for sharing it all so candidly.
Amy Burton | Leading lyric soprano, New York City Opera, The Metropolitan Opera, Major opera companies in Europe, the UK, Japan, and Israel; Recital and Cabaret; Faculty, The Juilliard School, Mannes College of Music
Kathleen Watt has written a brave and honest memoir about her battle with facial cancer, one that upended her career as an opera singer and her marriage, and required adapting to life with a permanent disfigurement. REARRANGED is a fierce examination of our culture’s ever-present obsession with female beauty and the perils of our convoluted healthcare system. And yet, throughout these pages, you’ll also find moments of surprising lightness and humor, and a willingness to stay open to the possibility of a new version of joy.
Julie Metz | New York Times best-selling author of Perfection, and Eva and Eve
In her new book, REARRANGED, music writer and former classical singer Kathleen Watt writes of how her diagnosis of face cancer changed her life forever. Watt tells the unforgettable, often catastrophic story of a life rearranged by more than thirty surgeries over the course of ten years. With the odds repeatedly stacked against her, she affirms that warriors and heroes still walk amongst us.
Clear-eyed curiosity and indefatigable resolve propel Watt's memoir, a chilling tale of an opera singer who finds herself the target of osteogenic sarcoma in her mid-face. The surgical removal of the tumor from the bones where sound resonates is followed by years of reconstruction. Courage, loyalty, medical expertise and determination seal the cracks of a well-examined life. The result is a story told with grace, honesty, and the humor necessary to survive becoming, as expressed by the world’s first essayist, Michel de Montaigne, one of “those that we call monsters.”
Don Cummings | Author of Bent But Not Broken
In Kathleen Watt’s world of protracted illness and recovery, body-wrenching chemotherapy is character-building, and humor is life-saving medicine. As an opera singer who once used her voice for resonant expression, Kathleen maintains this talent through her written words and her inspiring story of resilience and survival. REARRANGED is about what illness changes; and even more so, about what remains.