Life is like an ice-cream cone, you have to lick it one day at a time. – Charles M. Schulz
In January 1990, I went into see a doctor for a routine physical. After the appointment was over, the doctor told me that he felt a small lump. I immediately made an appointment to go to Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City where it was decided to have surgery to remove the tumor from my body.
The two weeks spent waiting for surgery were difficult as my mind was racing with thoughts of the worst possible scenarios. I was also plagued with the question of “how could this happen?”
I was young, healthy, maintained a regulated diet, and exercised but none of these things stopped me from having a cancer.
I’ve been a professional musician since I started performing in bars and clubs just before my 16th birthday. It was a struggle to get through undergraduate school, as my parents were unable to pay for my college tuition.
Fortunately, at that time in the late 70s and early 80s Queens College, CUNY was extremely affordable. I was able to pay for tuition and living expenses by taking out small student loans and playing piano in various commercial bands. While thankful for the meager living I was able to cobble together by playing in bars and clubs nightly, I had greater aspirations for a musical career.
My aspirations became a reality a few months after graduating from college. I was asked to view a show that was running in a small off-Broadway theater in New York City called Little Shop Of Horrors.
Not knowing what to expect, as I had very little experience playing musical theater, I was immediately blown away by how incredible the performance was and the talent of both the band and the performers on stage.
I knew immediately that this was an opportunity I could not pass by. Since that night, I was a member of the band for five years, beginning as a substitute player and eventually becoming a full-time member. It was an incredible experience and easily one of the highlights of my life.
Becoming a member of the band allowed for a stable income and lifestyle. I began thinking of other personal aspirations that I wanted to pursue, like scoring television and film productions and completing my Masters Degree.
Focusing on the Positive
While waiting for surgery, I thought about how thankful I was to have had that experience and how I knew that I had much more to offer in this lifetime. I had my eyes set on working with other Broadway productions like Miss Saigon within the next year.
As I got ready for surgery, the need to focus on a positive outcome instead of worrying about the worst-case scenario became apparent. The surgery went well and I was in the hospital for three days. The biopsy came back positive for a seminoma. This was relatively good news as this type of cancer was not as aggressive as a carcinoma and easily treatable.
While recuperating from the surgery, a friend of mine, Bob Billig, called me to asked if I would be interested in playing the keyboard book for the national tour of Les Miserables for six months in Boston. In the back of my mind, the thought occurred to me that taking this gig would greatly increase the chances of getting hired for Miss Saigon. It was an opportunity that would be difficult to pass up.
One Breath at a Time
While at this point I was feeling well enough to take walks, the thought of actually going back to work had not yet crossed my mind. There were six weeks of radiation therapy on tap, and many more tests to be done.
I called the physician at Sloan-Kettering who would be supervising the radiation therapy, and asked about the possibility of getting treatment in Boston. He said I could have radiation therapy with a colleague of his at Brigham & Woman’s Hospital.
He also said the six weeks would not be pleasant as I would most likely be sick from the treatment but that the situation, with the right medication, would be manageable. I made the decision to take the gig, do the best to manage the situation, and play as well as I could.
It was decided the best course of action would be to have treatment as early as possible in the day, so that I could rest up for the performance in the evening. The first few treatments went well and I felt nothing out of the ordinary.
Eventually, I experienced extreme nausea and constantly wondered if I would be well enough to work. After some time, I was able to manage the nausea with medication so that I could perform nightly. I was exhausted, irritable, and very unhappy until I decided I needed to take control of my situation and not let my misfortune set the tone for my life.
“One breath at a time, one step at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time,” this mantra allowed me to cherish the day and take note of my advancements.
I was motivated by the promise of working as a principal keyboard player for a hit Broadway show and the opportunities it would bring. Allowing myself to maintain a positive outlook on my present and future alleviated my stress and difficulties.
Playing the keyboard for Les Miserables was a very difficult job. The band would play exactly for three hours and 20 minutes, difficult especially with exposed keyboard parts with almost every beat conducted.
Eventually I achieved a state focused on just being in the here and now. Eventually the radiation treatments stopped and I started feeling better. In the fall of 1990, I was hired to be the principal keyboard player for the Broadway production of Miss Saigon, a job that lasted for exactly 10 years.
24 years after a cancer scare, many of the dreams that sustained me during that period of time have come to fruition, and for that I am eternally blessed and thankful.