10/28/05 — Playing from her heart and with a lot of faith

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Playing from her heart and with a lot of faith

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 28, 2005 1:45 PM

MOUNT OLIVE - Carolyn Jean Watson, a senior piano performance major at Mount Olive College, said she knows the healing power of music.

It has not cured the blindness she developed at age 3 or helped her avoid the recurrent cancer the 20-year-old has battled four times. But it has been one of the constants she credits with making her who she is at heart.

C.J. Watson playing piano

News-Argus/Kaye Nesbit

C.J. Watson, a senior music major at Mount Olive College, is chapel pianist and the recipient of the Charles Hinnant Music Scholarship, awarded annually to the most talented music major.

"There's times when I can only express myself through playing, and I can't get my emotions out any other way," she said. "My mom always said she could tell what kind of mood I was in by my playing."

C.J., as she is known to her friends, was diagnosed with bilateral retinal blastomy at 17 months. By the time the tumor was found, it was too late to save her right eye. To keep the tumor from spreading to her brain, surgery was performed, but the cancer had already begun to affect her left eye.

"They fought to try and save my left eye for about a year and a half," she said. "I went through 21/2 years of chemo, eight weeks of radiation, and by the time I was 3, that's when I went totally blind."

To compensate, her parents decided to have C.J. take piano lessons.

"They didn't know what kind of child I'd grow up to be, what I'd be able to do," she said.

C.J. was so tiny, she could hardly even reach the keys.

"They'd have to put tape on the keys so I'd know where my fingers would go," she said. "There's still a little bit of tape on my keys back home that won't come off. "

Without sight, C.J. could not learn to read music, so learned to play by ear. As she grew older, she realized she had perfect pitch. To train her ear, the teacher would play chords, and C.J. would tell her what they were.

"Eventually, I realized that I could use piano as a way of expressing myself," she said. "My favorite pastime would be to play for hours."

In December 1996, at age 12, she was diagnosed with a tumor on her left eyelid.

"It is usually only found in people 65 years old or older," she said. "I made medical world history, and it ended up recurring three more times."

The cancer spread from her left eye to in front of her ear, but was successfully removed. She did, however, lose some feeling to that side of her face, which she still experiences.

At Thanksgiving time in 1997, her eye pocket collapsed from so much damage, she said, requiring reconstruction. Nine months later, in August 1998, the tumor returned.

She said the doctor approached her parents midway through the four-hour surgery to get their permission to continue.

"The tumor was wrapped up in the facial nerves that control the muscles," C.J. said. "If he touched one of those nerves, I'd be paralyzed. The main one was attached to my mouth, (which meant) I wouldn't be able to eat or smile. It was a miracle. He came out two hours later and was able to successfully remove the tumor."

She said as it turned out, the doctor had to touch all the nerves except the one to her mouth.

"That's why I always try to keep smiling," she said. "I always go back to that. That will never, ever go away because that's something that God saved was my smile."

In an effort to prevent the tumors from returning, she underwent six weeks of radiation. It was a tough decision, C.J. said, because her body had already been compromised by eight weeks of radiation when she was a baby.

For four years, she was cancer-free. As she started her senior year in high school, life couldn't be better.

"I was dancing that year, I was in theater, still singing, and then all of a sudden, it just happened," she said. "A tumor surprisingly showed up."

Tests showed surgery was necessary.

"It really hit me hard," she said. "I was pretty upset for a week."

But many rallied for the family, praying for her healing. Some, she said, even gathered outside in a field in the rain one day to pray for her.

The 90-minute surgery turned up the miracle they had prayed for.

"Doctors said they had to send it off but it did not appear to be a tumor anymore," C.J. said. "We know how to explain it."

Because it was such a miracle, C.J. said she doesn't even count it in calculating how long she has been cancer-free.

"I say that Aug. 28 is my special day," she said. "I say that I have been cancer-free for seven years now."

There was a time when she didn't think she would turn 18, go to college, or live any sort of a normal life not connected to a hospital. C.J. said she got through it all with the support of family and friends, especially her parents Mike and Kathy and younger brother, Kemp, a senior in high school, all of Winterville.

"There were times when I just got sick of it," she said. "Even to this day, I get really quiet when I go into hospitals. Every obstacle that I face might get me down but it's not worth worrying about. God's given me such a determination that I can't ever give up."

Services for the Blind has also provided help. C.J. uses a special computer equipped with features like Braille keys and a device that speaks, telling her what she has programmed and typed.

Mount Olive College professor and chairman of the school's music department Dr. Alan Armstrong said C.J. has taught him something, too.

"It just tickles me to death," he said. "It's been a joy to find different ways to get material to her."

Armstrong said he will sometimes record assignments, talking C.J. through the pieces she is learning.

"What I have to do is play the pieces myself without looking. If I can do it, I know she can do it," he said.

C.J. said she toys with the idea of one day teaching piano lessons or leading worship in a church, but also feels strongly about working in a hospital or cancer center.

"I feel such a calling on my life not only to use the gift of music God has given me, but to be with the people that are hurting, be with the people that don't understand why this is happening to them, the children especially," she said. "My heart breaks for them. I hope that by knowing my story and seeing how God has been so present in my life, they'll start to understand that there's someone to count on, someone you can trust."