Lady Sang the Blues

Monica Janzen had a great voice, a solid band and a new record. She also had breast cancer.

Monica Janzen first felt the lump in her breast eight years ago, when she was thirty. It was small, and her doctors said it was nothing. In fact, a month later it went away, and so she got on with her life as a computer consultant. She continued moonlighting as a singer, using her childhood nickname, Monni, as her stage name, picking up a gig here or there in Wichita's modest music scene.

The lump returned in the summer of 1999, just as Janzen, now living in Colorado Springs, was leaving on a six-week business trip to Austin. In a week it grew from the size of a nickel to that of a quarter. Nervous, she cut her trip short and hurried to Denver for a mammogram, then waited through a long weekend before learning she had breast cancer. The lump was malignant, and the cancer had already moved to her lymph nodes, which meant it could easily travel to the rest of her body.

Doctors combated the disease with a brutal regimen. They removed Janzen's right breast. Then her left. Then her ovaries. The doctors tried to hit all the places where they thought the cancer would likely spread -- all of the places that made her feel like a woman. She asked them a simple question when each new procedure was recommended: "Is this gonna cure me?" If they told her yes, she consented. Chemotherapy left her dog-sick for months; as soon as she felt better, it was back to the hospital for more treatments.

Monica Janzen, photographed last month in Colorado Springs.
Anthony Camera
Monica Janzen, photographed last month in Colorado Springs.

Before those treatments began, Janzen's doctor had told her to do something she'd always wanted to do. And so throughout her ordeal, she clung to the idea of making an album. This past spring, when she began to feel better, she assembled a band and found a producer. She also became an activist for local breast cancer causes. At the end of the summer, she recorded her debut CD, Colors of Life; by this fall, it had been released to Denver-area stores. But then the cancer returned, spreading throughout her body. Janzen's doctors told her she probably would not survive past the end of the year. Talk of a regional tour, of honing the band's potential, of the future, faded.

Instead, the talk turned to who would care for her two boys after she was gone. (It was decided that seven-year-old Zach and ten-year-old Josh would move to Kansas to live with one of Janzen's sisters in Wichita.) She got busy working with lawyers to set up wills and trust funds. And there were more doctors, and lots of pills, and visitors, who came to offer their support and love but seemed less prepared for Janzen's death than Janzen. That she'd finally put out a CD was scant consolation for anyone other than Janzen.

"I'm really glad to have gotten that done," she said during an interview last month at the Springs home of her sister, Gilda Ray.

But Janzen never wanted to put out just one album.

They used to call Monni the "sister of many colors" because she always got stuck with the colorfully mismatched hand-me-downs. "I looked like some child they kept in the basement," she remembered, referring to the lot of being the second youngest of twelve children. Born in the small town of Bastrop, in northern Louisiana, Monni and her large family moved to Wichita when she was four. Her mother was a school-bus driver who used to drop her own kids off, often shouting instructions to clean up the house or do the dishes before she returned from work. Her father, a disabled Vietnam vet, split just after the move. But he left the family his singing genes.

Encouraged by her older sisters, who remembered their father and were always singing tunes, Monni began to sing, too. Her sisters sang for fun, but she took voice lessons in school, and she took the lead when she was on stage. "Her voice had a lot more control," sister Gilda remembered.

The young singer sharpened her ear listening to singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole and Bobby "Blue" Bland. Her mom loved swing-era jazz, so Monni listened to those albums, too. Her older siblings listened to Motown, and so did she. She played records over and over again, trying to get as close to the singer's tone and delivery as possible. As a teenager, she won a high school talent show, and when she was fifteen she sang at her brother's twenty-year high school reunion in Louisiana. There she met a Nashville music producer who wanted her to travel to Tennessee to record an album, but her mom wouldn't allow it. Hurt, Monni began thinking about pursuing a different path. Although she majored in music performance at Wichita State, she took a minor in computer science, a field she continued to pursue after graduation.

In 1988 she met a piano player named Ken Janzen in Wichita. They began playing together, mostly at small bars and parties, and were married in 1989. Monni and Ken both talked about doing an album some day, but she was the family breadwinner, and work didn't leave a whole lot of time for other things. So she mostly filed her songs away. In 1991 she was transferred to St. Louis for half a year, then spent a year in San Antonio before returning to Wichita.

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