VINCRISTINE. It is the name of a chemotherapy drug, and it is also the title of a debut single from 18-year-old singer and cancer survivor Chelsea Stutchbury.
In 2014, Chelsea was halfway through her final-year studies at Bundaberg’s Shalom College when she was diagnosed with lymphoma.
During the next few months she was forced to undergo three intensive rounds of chemotherapy in Brisbane.
Vincristine was prescribed, and as the treatment progressed, the chemical side-effects began to increase.
“It made my voice weak and shaky and I wondered if it would ever go back to normal,” Chelsea said.
But, far from wanting to quit, Chelsea channelled her fears.
She wrote Vincristine – a haunting melody with lyrics that reflect her fear of whether her strong singing voice would ever return.
Since then she has recorded the song and released it online with the support of Sony Foundation and Make a Wish Australia.
It has reached number-98 on iTunes’ song chart and is being played in Europe and America.
All proceeds of the song are going to the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, which is exploring breakthrough technology to treat cancer by manipulating the immune system.
“If it were not for research I would not be here; it is close to my heart,” Chelsea said.
She described her months of chemotherapy as life-sapping, but she never lost her spirit.
“I started off being an inpatient in Greenslopes hospital. I was 20 kilos heavier with fluid build-up.
“I had six rounds of chemotherapy, three weeks at a time.
“I was in bed every day getting treatment, not fun at all. I couldn’t concentrate. I had ‘chemo brain’ – even people talking around me was disturbing.
“It took the energy out of me, messed up my taste and made me lethargic.
“In the second week of each treatment I would get a sore throat and couldn’t sing, I got mouth ulcers.”
By the third round of chemo treatment, Chelsea’s hair started falling out.
“I remember sitting on a balcony and my mum shaved my head. I had always had long hair, it was a big moment, but there were other things, more important to think about,” she said.
In the midst of this turmoil, Chelsea auditioned for the Queensland Conservatorium with chemotherapy intravenously attached.
She was accepted and is now studying jazz as part of a Bachelor’s degree.
“You don’t know how truly strong you can be until faced with something of great challenge,” Chelsea said.
She is now in remission, but still requires regular drug maintenance.
“My doctor is confident it will stay gone, so I can stay positive. It seems like everything should be good now,” she said.
“I have lots of people praying for me. It does make you appreciate life so much. You are only here once.”
Chelsea said her cancer battle only strengthened her desire to play music, something she has always loved.
“I grew up surrounded by music. My grandmother plays the piano, and plays the clarinet in the Bundaberg Symphony Orchestra,” she said.
“I have her to thank for my musical upbringing.
“There was always jazz playing in the house – Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.”
One of Chelsea’s biggest thrills has been meeting Katy Perry.
It was a “surprise” meeting, arranged when Katy Perry was performing a concert tour of Australia.
“I met Katy at the end of one round of chemo,” Chelsea said.
“I bought tickets to see Katy with my friends, while I was still undergoing chemo.
“My doctor said: ‘Well, you may even get to meet Katy … yes, if you are well enough’.
“That was a moment.”
Following treatment, Chelsea gave an opening solo vocal performance at the Aim for the Stars Foundation 2015 gala fundraising dinner in Sydney.
Her potential was spotted by Aim for the Stars patron, world champion surfer Layne Beachley, and Chelsea went on to receive an Aim for the Stars scholarship and has became a foundation ambassador.
INXS’s Kirk Pengilly also encouraged Chelsea with her recording endeavours as well as her stage performance.
Meeting Delta Goodrem and Taylor Swift continued her inspiration to sing and create music.
Chelsea co-wrote Vincristine with The Voice Australia musical director Scott Aplin, who also performed as pianist on the recording.
It was recorded at Sony’s Sydney studio with co-producers and engineers Kevin Browne and Adrian Breakspear.
“Chelsea was a natural in the studio and it was a pleasure to work with her. I’m very proud to have been able to help her develop this very special song,” Adrian said.
While Chelsea continues her studies at the Conservation of Music, she is also singing publicly.
Her latest performance was at the Flora and Fauna Fashion Gala at Bundaberg’s historic Fairymead House on April 9.
“It was a very big deal in Bundaberg,” Chelsea said.
“I have never sung for an hour straight before. My voice held up well and the crowd was really great.”
By Mark Bowling