In honor of Bill "Slim" McCulloch

Blues musician Bill McCulloch talks about the best part of music: “It’s those rare little moments when everything comes together musically and the group creates something greater than the parts.” Not unlike a musical group, a team of UNC Lineberger cancer specialists came together and successfully treated Bill, or “Slim” as he prefers to be called, for a head-and-neck cancer.

Slim McCulloch imageSays Slim: “ I’m grateful that I received the treatment I did. It was actually tailored to me, and was what I needed and what I wanted.”

Years ago, Slim had been diagnosed with a benign Warthin’s tumor in the parotid gland (the large saliva gland in his right cheek). Since such tumors often recur, he thought that was the cause of a lump he felt on his neck in late 2011. But it wasn’t. He learned from surgeon Dr. Carol Shores that it was a squamous-cell carcinoma that had spread from his tongue to lymph nodes in his neck.

He says, “You could have knocked me over. The whole family was stunned. All the thoughts that go through your mind: Am I going to die? If I live, what kind of life will I have? Am I going to be able to sing? Play tennis? Not only life itself, but what quality of life? It all just floods your mind. It’s overwhelming for a while and then the human organism finds a way to get through it.”

Slim’s therapy was discussed by his team members Dr. Bhisham Chera, a radiation oncologist, and Dr. Juneko Grilley-Olson, a medical oncologist. He chose to take part in a clinical trial, with introductory chemotherapy followed by a combination of chemo and radiation therapy. The treatment was tailored to maximize the chances of a cure while still giving Slim, who was then 70, a fighting chance to come back as a blues singer.

When he came for his infusions, Slim used the time to write a journal. The former newspaper reporter, city editor, editor and publisher explains, “What really got me through therapy were my journal entries. It allowed me to get out of myself and go into the writing. Anything that took me out of myself was what helped me get through.”

Returning to music became a post-treatment goal. A longtime singer and guitarist, Slim had became interested in blues while living in Washington, DC, and, later, in Chicago during the heyday of several legendary bluesmen including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and others. He moonlighted as Windy City Slim throughout his career in journalism, but quit music (he thought for good) in 1989 when he moved to North Carolina.

Seventeen years later, a member of Slim’s extended family, diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, asked Slim for a CD of his songs. “The CD wasn’t the best,’ Slim remembers, “but he loved it. His wife said it probably added two months to the end of life.” And that got Slim started again with music—at least until the cancer diagnosis in late 2011.

“After I finished therapy, I was frail and exhausted. I took two steps: I started going to the gym where I worked with a personal trainer, and through the head and neck cancer program, I began working with a speech therapist to help my voice. As a result, I am physically stronger than I was. And my voice right now is better, stronger, deeper, and more resonant than it was before cancer treatment. These two miracles brought me back.”

Windy City Slim and the Sunnyland Rhythm Kings now perform regularly in the Triangle area.

Slim offers this advice to patients. “You can get through anything you have to. We all can. We all have reserves we didn’t know we had. I’m grateful to be singing again, grateful to be doing music again, grateful to be writing, and grateful to be alive. There really is life after head and neck cancer.”