Willie Nelson Hopes Stem Cell Surgery Helps with Continued Lung Issues

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In mid October, country legend Willie Nelson unexpectedly canceled a few upcoming concert dates in Virginia and Pennsylvania due to an undisclosed medical issue. At 82-years-old, any time there’s news of a medical issue with Willie, it can be a cause for concern. Now the medical issue has been revealed.

Willie Nelson took time off from touring to have a new breakthrough regenerative stem cell procedure conducted. The hope is it will keep the 82-year-old singing and performing for years to come.

“It was a stem-cell operation. It’s supposed to help the lungs,” Willie told The Washington Post late last week. “Over the years I’ve smoked a lot of cigarettes, and I’ve had emphysema and pneumonia four or five times, so my lungs were really screwed up, and I had heard that this stem-cell operation would be good for them. So I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna try it out.’ But I’m still so sore that I can’t say that it was a success. I’ll have to wait until all the soreness goes away.”

Asked if it hurts to sing, Willie responded, “I’ll let you know. [Laughs.] I think I’ll be able to sing. The only thing that worries me more than anything is carrying my guitar, because they did the operation right in my stomach. But I think I’ll be all right . . . I don’t do time off very well. But I’m really pissed that I’ve been laid up here the past couple of weeks with this operation, because I need to be working.”

According to the Lung Institute, stem cell treatment can be effective for individuals suffering from issues such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and pulmonary fibrosis. Many times the procedure is conducted by harvesting stem cells from the patient’s own body—sometimes fat tissue, bone marrow, or sometimes the patient’s own blood depending on the condition and health history of the patient. Then the stem cells are separated from the other body tissue and re-introduced into the lungs, sometimes intravenously or through a nebulizer or other means, with the hope of helping to regenerate damaged lung tissue.

Since stem cells can continuously regenerate, lung function can improve following the treatment. Such treatments are still considered experimental and in the research phase, but the American Lung Association says it “supports the responsible pursuit of research involving the use of human stem cells” to “further our understanding of fundamental lung biology and to develop cell-based therapies to treat lung disease.”

Willie Nelson is not only known for being a country star, but also for being a proponent of marijuana use. Though marijuana is significantly less harmful to the lungs than cigarettes, prolonged exposure can slightly increase the risk for lung diseases.

In Willie Nelson’s autobiography with Bud Shrake, the singer proclaims, “There’ been a lot of talk about marijuana being harmless, bit I think it’s a lot more dangerous to the lungs than most dope smokers realize. Especially the strong marijuana that’s around these days. Each year it seems to get a little stronger. The wise course is to not abuse it. Your lungs are not really supposed to breathe anything but oxygen—pure, fresh air.”

More recently, Nelson has been a proponent of using a nebulizer for marijuana consumption, especially for people experiencing lung issues. An extensive 2013 study on the use of marijuana and lung disease found:

Regular smoking of marijuana by itself causes visible and microscopic injury to the large airways that is consistently associated with an increased likelihood of symptoms of chronic bronchitis. On the other hand, habitual use of marijuana alone does not appear to lead to significant abnormalities in lung function . . . except for possible increases in lung volumes and modest increases in airway resistance of unclear clinical significance. Therefore, no clear link to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease has been established. Although marijuana smoke contains a number of carcinogens . . . findings from a limited number of well-designed epidemiological studies do not suggest an increased risk for the development of either lung or upper airway cancer from light or moderate use, although evidence is mixed concerning possible carcinogenic risks of heavy, long-term use.

Willie also spoke in his biography about his heavy habit of cigarette smoking earlier in his life.

“I smoked three to five packs a day . . . I started smoking so much I couldn’t enjoy a cigarette with my meal because I’d already smoked a pack beforehand. My throat burned and my lungs were sore. I smoked for years after I had stopped enjoying it. I quit smoking a hundred times before the day I finally took a deep inhale and it hurt my lungs so bad I knew at that instant I would never smoke a cigarette again.”

During recent Willie Nelson live performances, it’s clear the aging singer is losing a bit of his lung capacity, and is having difficulty singing. Though Willie otherwise appears to be in great health physically and mentally, especially for an 82-year-old, his lungs have been his one recurring medical issue. Wednesday evening (11-18), Willie Nelson became the only country music recipient of the Gershwin Prize from the Library of Congress. He was clearly breathy in his performances, but he is still likely recovering from the surgery. With the new stem cell procedure, hopefully Willie can be put on the right track and continue to entertain audiences for years to come.