NORMAL — Michelle Vought's voice is well suited to sing opera.

Her personality is well suited to fight cancer.

Put the two together and you have a cancer-fighting diva who hits the right notes, whether she's singing Puccini, beating cancer twice or describing why she's given annual benefit concerts since 1989 to battle cancer.

"I think we all have to actively participate to fight for a cure," Vought said in her Normal home.

In front of her are pink boxing gloves, pink athletic shoes, pink bracelets and a "Support the Cure" warm-up jacket. She will appear on stage wearing that attire — with a black gown underneath — when she is introduced for her next benefit concert later this month. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

"We can contribute our various talents and share our stories to inspire others," Vought said.

"People have told me over the years that my story has helped them to deal with whatever they were dealing with. When I can be an inspiration to others, I feel like a million bucks."

Vought ("Vote"), 56, is a professor of voice and opera at Illinois State University. She is an opera singer who has performed internationally. She also is a survivor of sarcoma and breast cancer.

Vought was a public school music teacher who sang as a hobby and decided to pursue vocal performance as a career.

"I wanted to get out in the performing world," she said. "I enjoy delving into characters in costume."

"My voice lent itself to opera rather than other genres because my voice sits high. It's very operatic in nature. I can sing high and light."

She entered the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, with the goal of a doctorate in vocal performance.

During her second year there, in 1988 at age 29, she noticed that her left leg would ache when she was lying down and it was getting bigger. She went to the university's student health clinic, which referred her for a CT (computed tomography) scan.

Doctors found a tumor the size of a baseball in her left thigh. A biopsy confirmed that she had sarcoma, a rare cancer that grows in connective tissue.

"I was in total shock and disbelief," she recalled. "I felt like it was a nightmare."

Vought was admitted to the university hospital and underwent three days of intensive, inpatient chemotherapy. She lost her hair.

Then she had 22 outpatient radiation treatments, which resulted in a second-degree burn on her left leg. "This was 27 years ago. Radiation is different now," she said.

"I kept doing what I loved to do. I stayed in school and did opera." That fall (1988), she had a role in an opera in Columbus, Ohio, which called for her to wear a French maid outfit, including a short skirt and fishnet pantyhose, and she had to walk up and down a ladder on stage.

"I did it, even with the radiation burn on my left leg," she said. "I love performing. That feeds my soul. I needed something to give me joy."

On Dec. 5, 1988, the tumor — which had shrunk thanks to the prior treatments — was removed along with her vastus lateralis in which the tumor was encased. The vastus lateralis is the largest part of the quadriceps.

The surgery was a success. Thanks to weeks of physical therapy and Vought's determination, she went from not being able to move her left leg to performing in a show that required dancing in July 1989.

"I was motivated to do something," she recalled. "I wanted to contribute to the fight to find a cure for cancer to help others and to spread the word that even young people have cancer."

She did a benefit concert at her father's church in York, Pa. "People donated what they wanted and I gave the money to the American Cancer Society."

"It made me feel empowered. I was using my talents to contribute to the fight. I was an active participant in the fight against cancer."

Her cancer journey also gave her a new perspective.

"This ain't no dress rehearsal," she said. "You need to find the small pleasures every day, to live each day to its fullest."

Vought received her doctorate in vocal performance and was hired at ISU for a soprano teaching position in 1997. Over the years — as she has taught classes, worked individually with voice majors and performed opera internationally — she has given yearly benefit concerts.

Some years, money went to the cancer society. Other years, she gave it directly to families in the midst of cancer battles. She has donated more than $10,000.

In August 2014, results of her annual mammogram showed something suspicious. She had a biopsy, which confirmed stage 1 breast cancer.

"I was in shock and disbelief," she recalled. A myriad of appointments and tests followed.

In the midst of that, in October 2014, she did her annual performance during Women's Week at Provincetown, Mass.

"I just found out I had breast cancer. I decided to share my story and gained support and empowerment from other women there who shared their stories with me."

In addition, Vought was to perform a solo recital on Nov. 4 to help open the new performance space in the University Galleries. She considered canceling.

"Michelle is a woman who is full of life and full of positive energy when it comes to her interaction with students and representing the university throughout the community," said Justin Vickers, an ISU assistant professor of voice. So when he heard she was considering canceling, he thought she felt isolated.

"As a family of artists, what better way to lift her up than with music?" he said.

So Vickers and other members of the School of Music faculty, and some of Vought's students, performed with her on Nov. 4.

"It was really special," he said. "People were giving to Michelle as much as they were giving to the community."

She performed in The Pantagraph's Holiday Spectacular in early December, had a lumpectomy on Dec. 19, then a second lumpectomy on Jan. 23, with both procedures at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center, Normal.

Thirty-three radiation treatments followed in March and April at the Community Cancer Center, Normal. Her only side effect was fatigue.

"My partner Suzi (Williams) and my 16-year-old son, Nicholas (Koch), have been tremendous support throughout all this," Vought said.

She worked with Mary Kay Holloway, cancer center registered dietitian, to improve her nutrition. She eats more fresh fruits and vegetables, drinks more water and has cut back processed foods and sugar. She takes an exercise class, a ballet class and walks frequently.

On Oct. 16, she will be introduced at her annual benefit concert in Provincetown, Mass., as a two-time cancer fighter. That explains the pink clothing — and playing of the "Rocky" theme. Of course, she will shed the pink attire later when she performs.

"It's kind of a kitschy way of starting the show," she said. "But I want to show the women who supported me last year that I'm back."

"Michelle has shared with me to take time to smell the roses and to allow myself a moment to enjoy each day," Vickers said. "It's been really lovely."

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Health Reporter

Health reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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