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Cancer can't stop teen singer's music

By Henry Hanks, CNN
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Wed May 15, 2013
Carley Allison, diagnosed with a clear cell sarcoma in her trachea, donated her hair to charity while undergoing chemotherapy.
Carley Allison, diagnosed with a clear cell sarcoma in her trachea, donated her hair to charity while undergoing chemotherapy.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carley Allison has a cancerous tumor in her trachea
  • Allison shared videos of herself singing on YouTube and CNN iReport
  • Her videos received the attention of actress and pop star Selena Gomez
  • She is eager to get back on the ice one day, but is pursuing singing as a career

(CNN) -- Like many aspiring singers on YouTube, 17-year-old Carley Allison has uploaded several videos of herself belting out covers and original songs.

But her most popular YouTube video, which was later posted on CNN iReport, was shot just after doctors sliced a hole in her neck. A golf-ball-sized tumor -- what turned out to be an extremely rare cancer -- was causing her to have difficulty breathing, and she needed an emergency tracheotomy.

Even after the tracheotomy, she could still sing.

"Music has been my passion ever since I was young," the Toronto resident wrote on her blog.

"I started taking guitar lessons when I was 11 years old, and I've been singing for as long as I can remember."

Allison hopes that, despite the tumor, she'll still be able to pursue singing as a career.

The diagnosis

Music wasn't always the primary focus of Allison's life. She initially hoped to become a competitive figure skater, training six days a week for more than five years. The intense training was something she learned from her mother, who was an Olympic marathon runner in 1996.

It was through skating that Allison first suspected something might be wrong. "Her skating coach noticed that just walking up a flight of stairs, she'd breathe hard," said her mother, May Allison. It seemed unusual that such a young athlete might have trouble breathing.

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Allison and her family went for a year believing -- as doctors told them -- that she had asthma. But a CT scan in February revealed a clear cell sarcoma outside the trachea.

Allison knew her skating career would be put on hold.

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A rediscovered passion

Without skating to fill her time, Allison turned her efforts to singing. She has uploaded seven videos to YouTube in the past year, where she has nearly 50,000 views.

"Everything happens for a reason," she said of her condition. "It was an easy switch to put music as the biggest thing in my life right now ... and my music has taken off, which is nice."

In April, her videos received the notice of actress and pop star Selena Gomez. Gomez tweeted, "Carley Allison you are so strong girl. Love you! And praying for you. Keep singing."

The words echo many of the comments on Allison's YouTube and Twitter pages -- and helped her singing videos take off online.

She has certainly followed Gomez's advice, too. Singing is "therapeutic for her in a way," said her mother.

May Allison believes this is the best way her daughter has found to deal with the fact that she has a hole in her trachea and her hair has been shaved down, and it's how she has chosen to express herself.

Her daughter put it this way: "Before February 4, my biggest problem was trying to find a prom dress."

May Allison added, "She wants to make something of (her condition) instead of moping around."

Allison's focus on singing isn't unusual for a patient, said Dr. Michael E. Kupferman of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He has seen others with cancer turn to creative outlets.

"Any kind of devastating medical situation will make people more introspective," he explained. "Artists' careers have sometimes evolved having gone through cancer. I've seen patients find that creativity to express themselves whether in music or in art. We've seen that for millennia. It changes the tenor of their art and productivity."

What the future holds

Will Allison still be able to belt out her songs in the same way when her cancer is eventually surgically removed?

Luckily, "her vocal cords are not involved with the tumor," according to her mother.

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However, she added, "The one side that the tumor's on, the vocal cord nerve may be affected by the tumor. It's very difficult to tell on the CT scan. We're hoping the chemotherapy will help the situation."

Allison herself maintains a positive attitude.

"There is a smaller chance there may be some permanent damage, but I try not to think about that," she said.

Early on, there were some fears as well.

Allison admitted that she was originally scared by her diagnosis after searching online. She has since mostly stayed away from searching for information on her illness.

When the family learned about the tumor, May Allison said she and her husband got choked up.

"(Carley) turned to us in a calm voice and said she was glad it was her and not anyone else in the family, because she knew she could handle it."

Despite being told there was a 5% chance that chemotherapy would affect a tumor in the trachea, the tumor has become softer since treatment and has moved away from the thyroid gland, which makes it easier to remove surgically.

No matter what happens, Allison still plans to pursue her passions. She's still thinking about a possible singing career, despite the fact that she had to cancel an audition for Boston's Berklee College of Music a few days after she was diagnosed. She looks forward to getting back on the ice one day as well.

It's that unstoppable attitude that has been the most inspirational to witness, her mother said.

"From an early age, Carley always knew what she wanted and had no fear trying to get it," she said.

"For her, every day presents a new opportunity to take a step closer. The interesting thing about Carley is that she actually enjoys the journey as much as achieving her goals. When things don't go according to plan, she rallies quickly and moves on. She has the ability to make anything fun and finds it very difficult to sit still."

"She's been able to touch people," May Allison added. "Her public school raised $5,000 in a fundraiser for (Toronto's) Sick Kids Hospital where she's having her chemotherapy. There are thousands of dollars coming into Princess Margaret Hospital where she has the link on her blog. She's very proud of that."

In the meantime, Allison continues to inspire people on social media with her positive attitude.

"For me to be able to reach out to other people throughout all this has been great," she said. "People want to hear from me and hear my music right now so it keeps me happy. I cherish every moment. I have a different perspective on everything now. In the end, I think it will make me a better person."

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