Everyone has a different way of dealing with life’s difficulties. For Tom Willner, whose avocation is music and songwriting, it was a musical. As he was facing surgery for testicular cancer, he funneled his energies into developing the characters and song titles, and ultimately the words and music for “Turning Thirty, the Musical.” The production reflects his own cancer journey: facing surgery and its potential impact on fertility.
For Tom and his wife, Allyson, the ensuing years were “an emotional rollercoaster,” with the excitement of getting pregnant marred by a miscarriage; the completion of a Retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND) followed six months later by a CT scan revealing metastasis in the lung. But, looking back more than 16 years later, he can joke about husband and wife sharing nauseous moments – one from pregnancy and the other from chemotherapy. For both, the results were positive. The Willners now have three children – Klara, 16; Elliot, 13; and Miles, 8 – thanks to in vitro fertilization. And, after surgery on the left lung, four rounds of chemotherapy, regular shots to improve his white blood count, and innumerable visits to the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory, Tom is a cancer survivor.
Having worked for the American Cancer Society for 20 years, Tom had a very understanding employer throughout his course of care. But, more than 10 years post treatment, he still deals with cancer treatment-related issues that impact his finely tuned musical ear as well as his sharp mind, side effects often attributed to “chemo brain.” In his effort to maintain good health through exercise, Tom has cultivated a love of competitive running, but found that he needed physical therapy to deal with the pain caused by scar tissue from his surgeries.
And it wasn’t only his cancer history that impacted his ability to purchase life insurance. Family history of cancer -- his father died at age 64 of prostate cancer—was a factor.
Today, Tom works at Georgia State University in Instructional Innovation and Technology for student information systems. His musical, which has raised thousands of dollars for cancer non-profit organizations, refocused on health care education. His business partnership, Center Stage Education (centerstageeducation.com), provides innovative and engaging continuing education programs and keynote presentations that give professionals the opportunity to hear the perspective of the cancer patient.
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