Rearranged by Kathleen Watt

An Opera Singer’s Facial Cancer and Life Transposed

Rearranged by Kathleen Watt is subtitled “An Opera Singer’s Facial Cancer and Life Tranposed.”  At the outset of the book, the author feels on top of the world.  She can hardly believe she has the opportunity, as a member of the Metropolitan Opera Extra Chorus, to share the stage with some of her biggest idols.  She has a wonderful partner and a warm and close family. 

Then, one day, Watt discovers a bump in her mouth.  She is found to have a rare and aggressive oral cancer that is “breathtakingly tailored to obliterate my profession and my raison d’être, never mind my face” (p. 51).  She undergoes multiple reconstructive surgeries, some of which are unsuccessful or become infected.   While she is initially reassured she will be able to sing again in a few months, that goal proves unrealistic.  Watt’s partner is emotionally supportive for years, but even for her there is a limit.  When the author is unable to pull her own weight financially and develops an addiction to alcohol, the relationship unravels. 

The greater part of Rearranged chronicles Watt’s medical ordeals. Previously an active and productive person, she is now at the whim of her doctors’ schedules.  She gives up all hope of performing again. As anyone who has experienced an illness or the illness of a loved one knows, navigating the health care system can easily become a full-time job.   

The book ends optimistically as Watt’s condition stabilizes. She realizes she is lucky to be alive and accepts her “rearranged” looks.  She reconciles herself to a future where she will “henceforth sing mostly for myself “(p. 304), and redefines herself as a writer specializing in the performing arts. 

Rearranged is a book which teaches valuable lessons.  Watt endures extreme hardship, has her dreams shattered, and acquires wisdom that will benefit providers and patients.    

As anyone who has experienced an illness or the illness of a loved one knows, navigating the health care system can easily become a full-time job.  

One lesson learned is that unempathic caregivers may compound a patient’s suffering.  “A multi-gigging freelancer with catastrophic coverage at best” (p. 31), the author has a miscommunication with an endodontist and is threatened with a lawsuit for presumed nonpayment.   And when she dares to question another doctor, he snaps at her: “Ha, ha!  I’m not going to teach you surgery” (p. 57).  Fortunately, other providers have a manner that is more conducive to healing: “Because he [the doctor] conveyed neither arrogance nor impatience, his confident command allowed me to trust him easily.  And at that moment, nothing mattered more to my successful outcome” (p. 55), and “Alone among my doctors, he had thought to lament my loss.  A helium cloud filled me at this simple expression of kindness.  Nothing at that moment could have been more restorative” (p.108).    

One can understand how traumatic it must be to have one’s facial features distorted as the result of illness.  For a singer it can be career-ending, not only because she needs to show her face to the public but because the vocal cavity may be damaged.  But, beyond this, because “the face is the single most important organ of human communication” (p.105), the author feels she has lost her identity: “I felt as bereft of myself as I was of my voice…I missed seeing my reflection in the faces of others.  I began to lose track of my own subtexts, and myself” (p.237)    

The author relates a vivid and frightening memory of experiencing post-operative delirium (sometimes called ICU psychosis). When she comes out of surgery and suddenly realizes she cannot talk because she has had a tracheotomy, she pounds on the wall.  She wishes she had had “healthy people to paste accurate information alongside my cockeyed perception, so I could avoid drawing mistaken conclusions from my misperceptions” (p.146).  Instead, she overhears attendants saying “Boy, she’s really out of it” (p. 149) and referring to her as “a royal bitch” (p.140).  At no time does anyone think to help “confirm her sanity, quell her fears” (p. 150).  Hopefully, health care professionals will read this and think about it the next time they see a patient right out of the OR.    

In closing, it bears mentioning that at one point Kathleen Watt consults with surgeon Iain Hutchison in London.  Hutchison is the initiator and sponsor of the Saving Faces Art Project, a series of paintings by artist Mark Gilbert which “portray the faces of patients before, after and in some cases actually during their surgery for injury, deformity or cancer” and whose purpose is to “communicate the strength of spirit which can enable people with facial disfigurements and trauma to lead full and happy lives.” (from )  Likewise, the author of Rearranged inspires the reader by her strength of spirit in the face of inconceivable adversity. 

An Opera Singer’s Facial Cancer And Life Transposed
Heliotrope Books, New York, 2023   
384 pages 

Kathleen Watt’s website: