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The ESP of the
Jewish Way of Life


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  Ethics Spirituality Peoplehood

 

Cancer: An Unlikely Learning Experience
by Matthew Zachary


When I speak to audiences, I always start my speeches the same way: "My name is Matthew Zachary, and today is my best day."

I'm a musician, a composer -- a brother, a son, and a Jew. I'm also a member of an elite club -- one no one wants membership in. As of January 10, 1996, I became a cancer survivor.

When you're diagnosed with cancer -- when you hear the words, "You have a brain tumor," you suddenly find yourself less concerned with the small things in life.

That's the good side.

The bad side? Everything you'd expect -- and then some. The realization of your own mortality, the fear of death, fear of what the treatments will bring.

For me, the fears also went one step further: Would I play the piano again?

The doctors said no.

But I wouldn't accept this as an answer.

At twenty-one, music was my life. I was studying music in my senior year of college, playing piano wherever I could on the side, and composing almost every spare minute of my days. Since the age of 11, I'd eaten, breathed, and slept music. The piano was my life.

Then along came a brain tumor -- a rare malignant brain tumor. A medullablastoma the size of a golf ball, of the kind most commonly found in children under 12 years old.

Up until this point, my life had been pretty normal -- I had my family, faith, friends, and music. Then I'd begun to experience troubling symptoms. I started to have trouble with my playing, and noticed problems with my left hand's dexterity and motor coordination. At first, I shrugged the symptoms off, and simply pushed myself harder, practicing longer, trying to tell myself it was all nothing. But my body soon began to tell me that something much more serious was going on. I began to suffer from agonizing headaches and fainting spells. My speech became slurred. And I continued to lose ability and function in my left hand.

And then that news -- not just that I had cancer, but that I probably wouldn't play again. The chances for my survival with ability -- much less vision, hearing, or balance -- intact weren't good.

My answer to the doctors? "That's not good enough." I vowed to play again, no matter what. I chose treatment options that gave me the best chance for recovering the use of my hand and ability -- sometimes, even at a higher survival risk. I had eight hours of surgery to remove the tumor (during which, my cousin, a conservative Rabbi, held a minyan at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem), and went through dozens of full-body, high-dosage radiation treatments. I lost my hair, over half my body weight, and the ability to eat solid food. I managed to graduate with the rest of my class -- on time -- in 1996, despite my illness.

And through all of it, I was determined: I would survive, and I would play again.

And I prayed -- I turned to my faith. There is something to be said for the healing power of prayer. Throughout adversity, one must maintain a strong spirit, no matter how difficult. With a positive mental attitude, some gut-determination and little bit of hope, you will find that you can surprise yourself when you least expect it.

I also found new meaning and depth in the celebrations of that faith.  Rosh Hashanah, for instance, has always represented a rebirth to me. It is the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. No matter how tragic or triumphant the previous chapter was, we must learn from our experiences in order better ourselves and to make the coming year as fruitful as possible. I found new poignancy and understanding as well of Yom Kippur -- when we stand before God at our most humble vulnerable moment, as our sins are weighed and we unassumingly pray to be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year.  So I indeed felt humbled -- and reminded that life was in fact about forgiveness (especially towards ourselves).

Then came the recovery period. I slept most of the time -- often 23 hours a day -- but even in those few minutes I had each day, I'd practice. I'd scribble down music notes when a melody came to me -- and, surprisingly, they did. Even with the pain, and the tiredness, the music in my mind had still survived. Day by day, month by month, year by year -- I practiced, re-teaching myself the music and technique my fingers had once known without effort.

It's been eight years since my survival. I returned to my music, to the jazz-inspired compositions of innocence and emotion that I'd envisioned all my life. I released my first album, "Scribblings," based on those long-ago scribblings during treatment and recovery. This past year, I even recorded my second album, "Every Step of the Way," about the journey back into light and health. I'm always writing, playing, and recording. I get out, live my life, and each day -- no matter what challenges it brings -- is my best day. I speak to audiences of patients about survival, to audiences of doctors and nurses about care-giving, about connecting with those they treat as human beings.

And most importantly, when I speak to those audiences, I perform the songs that came to me along the way -- the songs that speak louder than any words about the fact that life can and will go on -- often, even richer than before.

Although painful at times, I tell people, when there are no answers, do not ask "why." Do not ask "why me." Do not ask "why not someone else?" Life is what you make of it. Instead, I tell them, ask "where" -- where am I going next?

Cancer isn't exactly the learning experience I'd prescribe to most. But in a strange way, it is an experience I'm grateful for. Cancer gave me the ability to look within, and to find my own strength -- to truly know what I'm capable of. And as a musician and composer, it gave me the comfort of knowing the music that was so important to me would always be a part of my heart and life. Nearly eight years later, the two -- life and music -- are still too deeply intertwined for me to separate -- as intertwined as life and faith. The challenge to survive can be a humbling experience for life is indeed as precious and frail as faith itself.

I thank God that I am alive, now more than ever. I am proud to be a Jew and I am proud to have faith in a way that I cannot put into words. I believe that being Jewish helped me to prepare me for the challenges of survival and the success I have today.

My name is Matthew Zachary. And today is my best day.

Recording artist, composer and public speaker Matthew Zachary brings hope and inspiration to thousands through his two hit solo piano albums as well as his acclaimed speaking and concert appearances nationwide. For more information on Matthew, please visit www.MatthewZachary.com or send email to buzz@matthewzachary.com

To order Mathew's CD's  go to: http://www.matthewzachary.com/store  
or call:  1-877-MUSIC-77

To listen to an MP3 sample of his music, click here.  

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