Loss of larynx doesn't stop disc jockey
After losing his larynx to throat cancer, James "Rev" Raley never asked himself "why me."
He places the blame on a smoking habit he began in high school. "I knew better," the 58-year-old Bear Creek resident said.
Since his surgery in 2008, Raley has been unable even to whisper on his own. For a longtime karaoke disc jockey, the loss could have been devastating.
But with the use of a prosthetic larynxes and the help of his friends, Raley continues to work in such local venues as Jersey Pub, 17356 Northwest Freeway, and Uncle Albert's Pub, 6172 Barker Cypress Road.
Raley said he hopes that his story will send two messages - one on the dangers of smoking and the other on the power of perseverance in the face of a serious illness.
"You may have to change your way of living, but don't give up. You find ways to evolve."
Much of Raley's career has been in the entertainment industry. He and his wife, Belinda, started a performing group they called the Life of the Party. They performed roasts, often for people turning 40, and presented humorous skits.
It was this act, in which Raley portrayed a preacher, that gave him his nickname as "Rev."
More than 20 years ago, James and Belinda Raley responded to an ad for a national karaoke machine company trying to reach new audiences.
The company provided training, and they started presenting karaoke shows.
"We did a show with Selena; we performed on cruise ships," James Raley said. "It was a lot of fun."
Raley said he'll never forget how beautifully his wife sang. But thyroid cancer left her unable to perform.
Then James Raley, already a double-bypass survivor, started experiencing regular pain in his throat.
He stopped smoking, but the damage was done, he said.
Raley said he had no illusions about the risks associated with smoking when he started doing it.
"It was a rebellious thing," he said, adding that he smoked initially to irk his father, a Baptist minister and a colonel in the U.S. Army.
After his cancer diagnosis, in November 2008, doctors at Ben Taub Hospital removed Raley's larynx.
Initially, he only could communicate with hand gestures and by writing on an erasable whiteboard.
After surgery, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment, which were deemed successful. Raley is now cancer-free.
One of his most therapeutic experiences during treatment was the book he read, Olympic skater Scott Hamilton's The Great Eight: How to Be Happy (Even When You have Every Reason to be Miserable (Thomas Nelson, $24.99).
Hamilton, who has endured testicular cancer and a brain tumor, shares his experiences and life principles in the book. He writes that survivors can succumb to a disease, adapt to it or evolve from it.
Raley decided to find a way to evolve.
Initially uncomfortable with the mechanized sound of an artificial larynx, Raley decided to start using one and taking the stage as "RoboRev."
Speaking for long stretches can result in an uncomfortable dry throat, he said, but his friends have come forward to help him with the shows.
Raley also started attending the annual convention presented by the International Association of Laryngectomees.
There, he learned about a prosthesis better suited to his needs and received information and encouragement.
Raley, meanwhile, is an encouragement to others, friend Chellinna Harris said. Harris is a former manager at Uncle Albert's Pub, who helped organize a fundraiser for Raley after his surgery.
She met him shortly after moving to this area. She didn't know anyone and had recently lost her son.
"He took me in as a friend and gave me a shoulder," Harris said.
Since his surgery, Harris added, Raley has remained determined to be positive.
"He's so courageous and uplifting. After he got the news, he didn't give up. He said, 'Don't worry. I'll be back.' You're thinking, 'I really, really hope so.' He's just a great man."
Raley said he doesn't miss a chance to tell others how smoking affected him. "I tell every kid I see and talk to, we don't all die from smoking. Sometimes we lose our livelihood."
He drives home the message when he shows the kids his throat.
"I owe it to them. God kept me around for a reason."
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