I was diagnosed with colon cancer on June 25, 2010. I was 45 years old. I had always been in tune with my body and I sensed something was not quite right. Along with other symptoms, I started losing weight. My symptoms and a strong instinct led me to a gastroenterologist to get a colonoscopy. I felt something was up but I never thought it was cancer. I was shocked.
On being told I most likely had colon cancer I remember telling the doctor that I had an extremely special concert coming up with my piano and percussion duo Synchronicity, which is me and my brother, Garah Landes. We were going to be playing in Italy with Paquito D’Rivera in a few weeks and I did not plan on missing it! The doctor listened compassionately, yet was skeptical. He insisted that the situation was very serious and must be tended to immediately. My wife and I went into action mode. After getting a recommendation from my brother, we put a fantastic surgeon on the case. We were in her office three days after the colonoscopy and in the OR a week after diagnosis.
The surgery was successful and my surgeon believed we had “containment” – the cancer hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes. But a week or so later, I found out that my lymph nodes had actually been seriously infected. I was devastated and terrified about having to undergo chemo treatments. Despite this, I kept my promise. Three weeks after surgery, my brother and wife and I flew to Italy to perform with Paquito at the Incontri in Terra di Siena music festival in Tuscany. My wife Cynthia had to give me shots of Heparin in my thigh before and after we got on the plane to assure there would be no life-threatening blood clots while at altitude.
In Italy, it was quite surreal being in an incredibly beautiful place playing amazing music with my brother and also with one of the finest musicians in the world – and feeling as though I was spinning off into oblivion. I wasn’t sleeping and I truly feared I was not going to survive. I had to consciously and regularly bring my attention back to the beautiful and life-affirming things that I was experiencing in the moment and try to push back the nearly uncontrollable fear. Luckily, I also experienced moments of great support, kindness and compassion given by my wife, brother, Paquito and his wife Brenda Feliciano, and fellow festival artists. I will never forget those acts of kindness, ever.
I returned home from Europe and began my chemo treatments. During the first two, I continued to perform. I underwent six months of chemo and then five-and-a-half weeks of radiation and additional oral chemo. This is standard protocol for most colon cancer patients. These treatments come with the danger of possible side effects, including neuropathy. One doctor told me that I might not be able to hold a stick or mallet, which could have made playing difficult or impossible. The thought of this was devastating. Luckily I managed to avoid this and most of the other side effects. I had been in good physical shape, and that helped a lot. I played nearly all of the shows and concerts that I had on the books during those eight months and continued a busy teaching schedule as well. The thought of not being able to do what I loved motivated me to fulfill every commitment and to enjoy every second of it all. My music, my students and my wife, family and close friends inspired me and gave me strength.
In searching for an effective way to navigate the extremely strong fears and emotions associated with fighting cancer, I was given a gift. My sister-in-law introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism. I chanted twice a day and tried to nurture my happiness and the happiness of others through faith, study and practice. It had a powerfully profound effect on me. Those who knew me before this time of my life can attest I was a fighter, someone often in battle with circumstances or people in my life. The experience of going through cancer and treatment and discovering a new way to perceive and live my life was a game changer. Over six years later, I am still practicing my faith. My practice continues to inspire and strengthen my resolve to be healthier and happier on every level and to live a more harmonious life. And while I always considered myself to be a caring person, I strive to be a more self-aware and compassionate human being.
As some of you might have read in a prior issue of Allegro, I have been a strongly committed advocate for the Colon Cancer Alliance. Through their buddy program, I connect with fellow colon cancer patients and survivors as well as raise awareness and money for the organization’s many life-saving programs. See www.ccalliance.org for more information. I have found many other ways to give something back and they are all things that make my life so much fuller, focused and rewarding.
Despite my deepest and darkest fears I have survived. Now I try to cherish and learn from every moment of my life. We all understand the challenges of navigating a sometimes difficult and constantly shifting landscape as musicians. My experience of coming through all of this has given me a deeper sense of gratitude, faith and compassion for all of the circumstances and people in my life. Every day I strive to be more aware of the joy and happiness in my life. I try to be grateful for every note played, every accomplishment of a student, every collaboration with all of my brilliant colleagues and every day that I am alive to give, learn, love and laugh.
Gregory Landes has been a member of Local 802 since 1988. Members of Local 802 are welcome to submit personal essays to Allegro for consideration in our MEMBER TO MEMBER column. E-mail email@example.com.