The Gift of Music
A self-taught musician takes what he has learned from his experience with kidney cancer to entertain, teach and inspire.
By Jenny Song
For the past eight years, Michael Lawing has walked the halls of the Hospice of Rutherford County in North Carolina at least one day a week with his Martin acoustic guitar, playing and singing for patients and their families.
A kidney cancer survivor for nearly 20 years, Lawing enters a patient’s room, pulls up a chair or leans against a wall, and begins strumming. He sings only gospel hymns like In the Garden or How Great Thou Art, but that’s fine with his listeners. For many residents at the hospice center, located in western North Carolina, old hymns and spiritual songs offer a connection to earlier times.
Travis Smith, a chaplain at the Hospice of Rutherford County from 2006 to 2013, has witnessed the power of Lawing’s singing and guitar playing. “We would see patients who were almost withdrawn, and once the music started, they would come out of their shells and they would smile,” says Smith. “Time and time again, Mike would go into the room and through his talent and what he did, he would bring patients back to a happier place.”
Smith recruited Lawing to serve in the hospice’s volunteer chaplaincy program in 2009, recognizing Lawing not only for his musical gifts, but for what Smith considers his ability to have meaningful conversations with people. Lawing, with humor, might refer to his extroverted nature as his “gift of gab.” But he embraces his role as a volunteer chaplain. In 2016, he covered more than 2,900 miles to make more than 200 visits for the hospice program.
Smith notes that Lawing’s music ministry has engaged patients when conversations and prayers did not. “It’s the music that’s literally bringing them out for a few minutes to give them a sense of life again.”
A Man With a Guitar
Lawing is modest about his talents—he considers himself an average singer and guitarist—but music is his passion. He taught himself to play the guitar at age 15 and began writing and performing songs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam War, in 1969 and 1970, and was awarded a Bronze Star. After returning home from the war at age 21, Lawing enrolled in a community college in Charlotte but dreamed of being a professional musician.
While completing his associate degree, Lawing began teaching adult education and continuing education classes at a nearby minimum-security prison. He designed courses covering topics like drug and alcohol abuse, and he taught inmates basic skills they would need to adjust to life in the outside world after they were released.
“I still run into people from the prison camps, and they tell me they’re glad they took those classes,” Lawing says. In 1986, Lawing was named Volunteer of the Year by the state’s Division of Prisons for his involvement leading an inmate-run program that raised money to buy gifts for needy children and families.
Over the years, Lawing has worked long hours in various industries, including printing, textile manufacturing and pest control. With his wife, Yvonne, they raised their son, Scott, in Rutherford County. During these years, music took a back seat to Lawing's busy life, but he occasionally played guitar in his church. His life might have continued on this course had it not been for a visit to the emergency room in November 1997 with severe pain in his side. A computerized tomography (CT) scan determined the cause to be gallstones, but the scan also revealed a massive tumor surrounding his right kidney. Lawing was prepped for surgery.
During the operation, doctors removed his gallbladder and the tumor. Lawing, then 49, was diagnosed with stage III renal cell carcinoma, the most common form of kidney cancer in adults. He had never heard of kidney cancer before his diagnosis. Lawing’s urologist admitted he knew little about the disease, but vowed to find out as much about it as he could and pass on what he learned to his patient. Lawing himself invested much of his time and energy in learning more about the disease, especially after his cancer metastasized in 2000. “A doctor told me, ‘Don’t ever think you’re cured,’ ” he recalls. “That was sobering, but he was being honest because I was in a bad situation.”
Learning About His Own Cancer
Realizing Lawing needed a specialist, his urologist referred him to surgical oncologist Richard L. White at Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, about 90 minutes from Lawing’s home. Luckily for Lawing, White had done his research fellowship at the National Cancer Institute, where he studied an immunotherapy drug used to treat advanced kidney cancer called interleukin-2 (IL-2). He recommended the therapy as Lawing’s only option. The grueling nature of IL-2 treatments—which include side effects like fever, chills, severe flu-like symptoms, nausea, low blood pressure and rash—required Lawing to stay in the hospital. During those stays, White would often visit his patient in the evening, sitting and talking about kidney cancer and answering any questions Lawing had.