House Heroes: The Gift of Music

An aggressive tumour and left arm amputation wasn’t enough to stop this talented Australian musician from finding a way to keep playing the saxophone.

Neill Duncan’s story is one that celebrates the human spirit and how it always shines brightest, even through the darkest of times.

“At a fairly early age I realised that music was a part of my soul,” he says. “It’s a part of who I am and while I don’t know why that happened, I don’t seem to have had a choice.”

For many years, Neill enjoyed an exciting and successful music career, until 2013 when a lump on his left arm threw his life into turmoil.

“The day I found out I had cancer [a rare and aggressive soft tissue sarcoma] was the day of the big snow in Katoomba and the place was dead quiet,” he recalls. “The sky was jet black, the ground was pure white, it was quite apocalyptic and I just knew that I had something that was nasty.”

A month of intensive chemotherapy had no affect on the cancer, leaving amputation Neill’s only option.

Before the surgery, Neill gathered with more than 300 members of the community, as well as musicians from far and wide to celebrate music, story telling and two arms. “It made me feel loved and made me feel like I could cope,” he recalls.

I feel grateful, because I feel like I’ve been given a lot by the community, I feel very lucky, and I really need to give back.

Two days later Neill woke up in recovery, the operation a success.

“It wasn’t until a little bit later that I started thinking, ‘what am I going to do now, how can I survive?’ as I definitely couldn’t be a saxophone player anymore.”

With the help of family, colleagues and the community, Neill raised the money to get a custom built saxophone, setting him on the path of being a one-handed musician.

“I teach kids music and I see in the kids when I’m teaching them the importance of being able to express themselves,” he says.

“When they play music they are telling a story, you can feel it. Everything they’ve been and heard comes out in their playing and it’s priceless.

“We can’t have a society without stories,” he says.

To see more House Heroes like Neill and learn how others have triumphed over adversity, browse our entire collection of inspiring stories.