ROCK ON: Singer Back To Making Sweet Music After Overcoming Thyroid Cancer

By Mary Green

You have cancer”....they are among the most devastating three words a person can hear.

In the case of Tony Harnell, being told in January 2009 that the bothersome area in his neck was, in fact, thyroid cancer was doubly frightening.

A vocalist with a four-octave range, Harnell has entertained legions of fans worldwide as frontman for Norwegian heavy metal band TNT and toured the U.S. with the likes of legendary rockers STRYPER, Twisted Sister and Great White. But with his 2009 diagnosis, he not only faced a delicate procedure to remove cancerous thyroid tumors from his neck, he was also wrestling with the thought that the potentially lifesaving procedure might also end his career due to the thyroid’s location near nerves that affect the way delicate muscles and tendons are used in singing.

Harrell’s career as a singer/songwriter was inspired in large part by his music-loving family, particularly mother Constance, who was a soprano with the San Francisco Opera and New York City Opera troupes. “I really started singing when I was five,” Harnell recalls. “There was always music in our house and I was just completely enchanted with music, plus my mother and aunt were both exposing me to a constant inflow of classical, pop and rock music.”

It was the powerful, operatic style of singers like Black Sabbath’s Ronnie James Dio, Judas Priest lead vocalist Rob Halford and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury that most inspired Harnell, and at 15, he joined his first garage band. He spent the next three years honing his skills and, at 18, began studying under world-renowned vocal coach Don Lawrence with the goal of landing a record deal by the age of 21. While performing in New York City with local band The Jackals, two industry music representatives approached Harnell about joining TNT. A week later he was on a plane to Norway to lay down tracks for TNT’s third album, and less than two months later the band was signing a deal with Mercury/Polygram. Worldwide acclaim followed. “It was incredible for us as a band and a natural merging of what I was into, because what I was good at singing was the type of music the labels wanted to sign and what people wanted to hear,” Harnell says.

In 2001, Harnell thought he detected a small growth in his neck but ignored it until four years later when, while on tour, he started experiencing neck pain that intensified whenever he performed. “The more I would sing, the harder I would sing, the more it would bother me,” he notes. Although the discomfort continued, he powered through it for several more years until he felt a nodule not only in the center of his neck, but also on the right side. A new physician finally recommended an ultrasound, then a biopsy two weeks later based on the ultrasound results. The unsettling news: it was papillary [pap-i-lar-ee] carcinoma, which is the most common type of thyroid cancer diagnosed in the U.S.

Harnell underwent a total thyroidectomy [thiroy-dek-to-me] procedure, in which his surgeon removed the complete thyroid–which had two large, cancerous nodules–and adjacent lymph nodes that were also affected. Several weeks later he underwent radioactive iodine therapy to destroy any remaining thyroid tissue in his body and was placed on thyroid hormone replacement medication to keep his body’s metabolism balanced, which he will need to take for the rest of his life. Because of Harnell’s occupation and the extensive surgery performed, he also opted to undergo physical therapy to rehabilitate his vocal cords and other muscles affected by the surgery and subsequent scar tissue.

He made it through his experience with his voice intact and is back to hitting all the high notes in his music...with a unexpected benefit from the ordeal. “One thing that’s different is that while I still have all of my vocal range, I have a richer, darker tone to my voice, which I’ve always wanted,” Harnell said. “I’ve been great ever since.”

Tony Harnell’s story is just one among many: thyroid cancer diagnoses have more than doubled since 1990, one of the few cancers that has increased in incidence in recent years. The good news is that thyroid cancer is an extremely treatable disease when caught in its early stages during a neck examination. To assist those who are interested in how to perform a self neckcheck or more information on thyroid cancer or other thyroid-related conditions, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) has created a dedicated website: