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Cancer Survivor Uses Music to Heal Himself and Others, Too

Right before he kicked off a 1992 American Cancer Society event with a piano concert, Matthew Zachary took hold of the microphone and shouted, “My name is Matthew Zachary and today is my best day!” The words now begin every one of Zachary’s speaking engagements — and pay testament to a cancer survivor who followed his own path to regaining his health and helping others do the same through music.

Zachary was first diagnosed with pediatric brain cancer in December 1995 at the age of 21, although pediatric brain cancer usually affects children between birth and the age of 8.

Zachary’s love of piano — he practiced 40 to 50 hours a week — not only helped him discover his brain cancer but later served as the emotional, spiritual and physical therapy that he thinks restored his health.

“The loss of strength in my left hand could only be noticed by someone who used their left and right hands consistently,” says Zachary, a native of Staten Island, N.Y.

Judaism also played a role.

“Religion for me has been a resource, a guide and way to positively influence my philosophies,” Zachary says. “I embraced my Judaism substantially when I was sick because it felt right, not because I was praying for myself.”

His left hand quickly weakened until it impeded his writing to the point where the music major at Binghamton University in New York had to take his midterms on a laptop — back when it was rare to do so.

But it wasn’t until an MRI noticed a mass larger than a golf ball in Zachary’s cerebellum that brain cancer became a possibility.

Zachary was eventually told he had a malignant brain tumor.

But, being a college senior, all Zachary wanted to do was go back to school and finish his studies.

Zachary had surgery soon after his diagnosis, which was followed up with radiation therapy. “I had every complication imaginable,” Zachary says. “I begged them to stop the radiation because it was killing me.”

Against doctors’ orders, Zachary went back to college and was able to get a musical he wrote produced.

Zachary thinks the production was a mind-over-body experience that helped him push beyond all the odds. “It was a spiritual release for me,” Zachary said. “It was like, ‘now I can die.’ “

Zachary then collapsed for three months, he says.

While at home at his weakest point, Zachary still sat at his piano everyday, even though his left hand was atrophied.

Still, because he was used to writing music in college for big band, orchestra and brass quartet, Zachary had a lot of music in his head.

“At home I had a piano, so I wrote for orchestra with one right hand.,” he said. “I felt like a creative paraplegic. But I played to stay connected to the last vestige of something that had meaning for me.”

During that time Zachary scribbled down illegible prescriptions of notes he would one day turn into music.

He also made the decision to stop his treatment, against the judgment of doctors. He attributes his resistance to his precociousness and dislike of authority.

“I asked them my statistical odds,” Zachary said. “Without the chemo I would die at age 26 and with the chemo I would die at age 26 and three months with a side effect of numbness in my fingers and toes. I decided I would rather die at 26 without chemo than live an extra three months and not be able to play piano.”

He recovered without the chemo.

In September, 1996, Zachary, looking for a fresh start, took a job working in the corporate world.

During this time, he used the piano that once warned him of his cancer to build back up the muscles in his hands.

In celebration, Zachary produced his first CD entitled, “Scribblings,” which was the finished product of the notes he took when he was sick.

His music is an eclectic blend of classical, jazz and New Age.

Zachary gave copies of the CD to his doctors, who used it as music therapy for children with cancer.

From there his path became clear.

The hospital purchased his CDs, he began to be invited to speaking engagements and sat on brain cancer panels. As his fifth year of survivorship arrived, Zachary prepared a launch party for his second CD, “Every Step of the Way,” which celebrates his surviving cancer.

By this time, Zachary’s hand had almost completely healed and at the survival party he realized he had to quit his corporate job and market himself as a speaker and cancer advocate.

For his next project, Zachary is building an alliance with the Steps for Living Foundation and The National Cancer Institute to work to improve the quality of life for cancer patients.

Zachary says it will exemplify survivorship through the creative arts and raise awareness for public concern. A compilation CD with artists who also survived cancer is in the works.

In addition, Zachary continues to give motivational speeches.

He’s not particularly religious in the traditional sense today, but religion, he says, has been a “guide way to positively influence my philosophies on trying to do tzedakah,” or charity.

Zachary’s third solo CD, “Absolving Destiny,” is next in line to be released. “In ‘Absolving Destiny’ most of the songs are about people,” he says. “I express a particular breakthrough where I forgive cancer in a weird Brady Bunch kind of way.”

For now though, Zachary works to cheer up faces by celebrating the possibility of surviving cancer.

“You don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to be a cancer survivor,” he says. “We can’t all ride bikes. It’s about figuring out what else we have besides a bike, and for me it was a piano.”

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