(May 25, 2023) He’s back!
Randy Lee Ashcraft has been off the music circuit for a year now, after being diagnosed with throat cancer. His return to the stage is now just days away.
He and the Saltwater Cowboys are getting together for their first performance since last year at 7 p.m., June 2, at Bourbon Street on the Beach on 126th Street in Ocean City. The performance will be a celebration and fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.
“I feel great. It was a journey, but I feel good now,” Ashcraft said.
Ashcraft’s cancer was caused by human papillomavirus or HPV virus.
“Eighty percent of people have it. You get it when you are in your teens. For 90 percent of us, your body just puts it away.”
But it can manifest itself as throat cancer in men and cervical cancer in women, and today there is a vaccine for it.
Fortunately, Ashcraft gets annual check-ups on his throat because he is a singer. It was at one such examination that his doctor felt the lump and told him it felt like cancer.
“I was completely devastated when I found out. I thought I would lose the ability to sing,” Ashcraft said.
His surgeon, whom his wife Lisa found, was the doctor who discovered the link between throat cancer and HPV. Her team at Johns Hopkins specializes in head and neck cancer caused by HPV.
The surgeons told him, “We think we are your best chance for you to sing again.”
They were lucky enough to have friends who lived near the treatment center and did a house swap. Lisa worked remotely from the hospital while he received treatment. They would come home on the weekends.
“I guess you don’t fight cancer on the weekends,” Ashcraft said, who added that the treatment was hard on his body.
He said he was told before treatment to gain as much weight as he could because he was going to lose it.
“I was eating cheesesteaks, cheeseburgers, anything I could get my hands on.”
“They could not find the tumor. They knew where it was. I had my tonsils out in 1969 and there was a little nub of my tonsil that was still there. I had a tonsillectomy, and the tumor came out with the tonsil. That left a little hole, and that is where they aimed the radiation.”
“That ended up being a big challenge on the back side as far as eating and being able to swallow.
“They told me I was going to have to get a feeding tube if I did not start eating.”
A friend brought him some split pea soup and he could swallow that, which gave him the idea to puree his food.
“I started pureeing everything. Sausage and eggs in the morning. “
“I put roast beef and mashed potatoes and ground it up, and I put some weight on and avoided the feeding tube.”
“At first, I thought that was disgusting. Eventually I got to like it,” Ashcraft laughed.
Today, he can still feel the ulcer that remains where the cancer had been.
“It’s still there. I can feel it, but it is almost healed.”
He had chemotherapy and radiation for three months, which ended in August. Each session was five to eight hours.
“My first chemo infusion, I guess I was feeling sorry for myself.”
“The nurse comes in wearing a hazmat suit bringing the stuff they were going to put in his body.”
He told the nurse, “I took care of myself for 60 years so I could get cancer. And she said to me, ‘No sir, you took care of yourself for 60 years so you could beat cancer.’
“That changed everything for me.”
“She set me straight and I felt better because of it. I was the guy in the waiting room cheering everybody up. I approached it on a more positive level after that.”
To do the radiation treatment, the doctors created a “cancer mask” of his head that was made out of mesh. He would lie on a table and they would put the mask on and bolt it, and thus his head, to the table.
An aide bolted him in for his first treatment. “When it was over, he asked me if I was OK, I said, ‘You didn’t mess up my hair, did you?’”
“The second day, same thing, he asked me if I was okay, and I asked him, ‘You didn’t mess up my hair, did you? By the third time, he said, ‘You’re messing with me, aren’t you?’”
While he walked away from his guitar for a time during treatment because it just made him too sad to play and not be able to sing, he continued to write songs and plans to make an album in the fall.
He wrote a song about his treatment called ‘My Cancer Mask.’ One line in the song is, “I knew I was getting the world’s best care, because no matter how tight that mask was, they never ever messed up my hair.”
He videotaped the song and shared it with his oncologist. She asked for a copy and played it for the Tumor Board (a group of doctors who consult on cancer patients). They loved it and are going to include it in the booklet that they provide to patients at the start of their treatment.
He said he had great support from friends.
“I never felt forgotten,” said Ashcraft.
Once his voice started to come back, he asked his doctors if he could sing. They said I should start doing my vocal exercises and as it got easier, he started to sing some songs.
“My voice is different. I still have some healing to do. There are some songs I still can’t sing yet, but I am excited about it. “
Once he felt strong enough, he called the Saltwater Cowboys.
“The rehearsals have been so much fun. We are like little kids again.”
“It’s fun for me to see them so happy to do it again.”
He does not plan to go back to five or six nights away. He expects to play one or two nights instead.
“I am going back to my roots and will play mostly originals. I am going back to where my heart is and I’m going to do what I love.”
“It’s so corny but I gotta say it. I always took the advice of people who had been through this to love life every minute. I thought I did.
“I was in the military; I jumped out of planes. Made me think that I understood that. But when you’re laying strapped to a table and they are shooting you full of poison, you’re like, if I get through this …
“My answer now is ‘yes’ to everything as long as we can afford it. I am happier than ever. I can’t wait to sing the songs they [friends/fans] ask for. I want to do that again. I will do it as long as they will listen.”
Ashcraft said the Bourbon Street performance will be a little different. He will come out solo first, do some songs with his daughter, Bailey Mae, 16, and then two members of the band will come out and do some acoustics and then the whole band will come on stage. His brother, Jim, will even join him for a song or two. His cancer mask will make an appearance as well.
If fans and friends want a sneak preview before the Bourbon Street comeback, Ashcraft will perform at the Worcester County Veterans Memorial in Ocean Pines, on Monday, May 29, beginning at 11 a.m.