“When you’re going through something like that, you need to find inner strength and joy. I got stronger and stronger.”
How did you find out you had Hodgkin lymphoma?
It was a ragged road to my diagnosis. My wife, Marilyn, and I had just returned from Italy, and I started having sweats and chest issues, including coughing. I went to my doctor; his best guess was pneumonia. But my wife, who had worked as a lab tech, saw the results of my blood test, realized my hemoglobin was low and suggested I see a hematologist. At the John Theurer Cancer Center, which is affiliated with Hackensack University Medical Center, they performed more blood tests, including of my bone marrow. Still no diagnosis. When my symptoms got worse, they performed a PET scan, and I was finally diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s. After two months of seeing different doctors, it was official.
Did you head into treatment?
Yes, chemotherapy started immediately, 12 rounds from September to March. Although I was zonked and tired and nauseous, I’ve always lived my life with positivity–I’m a born entertainer who performed on Broadway, on the Catskills circuit and emceeing corporate events. I decided to connect with all the nurses and bring joy to every session.
When the chemo was over, a PET scan showed that I still had Hodgkin’s. At that point, I had a bone biopsy that was sent to the NIH. My case was reviewed by specialists at top hospitals, including Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York. They decided to start me on immunotherapy, which had just been approved. I went into remission that summer.
That was the news you were waiting for.
Yes, but my oncologist said: We want you to take another step–that is, have a stem cell transplant. It would be autologous, meaning they would harvest my own stem cells. That was the easy part. Then the daunting process began, with intense chemotherapy every day for one week; this completely removed my immune system. When they added back my harvested cells, which they refer to as your “birthday,” hell broke loose. Your body begins rejecting and fighting the cells, and your bodily functions stop. I was in the hospital for three weeks, in isolation, and no one could visit. Slowly but surely, back I came, after wearing diapers. I was told I needed to begin exercise.
It was time to regain your strength.
Yes, which began with walking a certain amount every day. I decided to find the joy in all this, so I wore a Cat in the Hat, red and white, three-foot hat as I went into the hall for my exercise. Everyone who saw me would light up and laugh. When you’re going through something like that, you need to find inner strength and joy. I got stronger and stronger. I finally went home and could have visitors. My wife and I attended a class on what to do and not do, what food I could eat, etc.
I started teaching again–online. I’ve been teaching event management and production at New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality for 27 years. I teach both undergraduate and graduate students; I developed the first online event management course. Sadly, I had to leave BizBash Media, my company, because I couldn’t go out to work.
When you were diagnosed, did you know anything about Hodgkin lymphoma?
No, I didn’t know a thing, and my doctors didn’t tell me much. I was 72 at the time. I’m grateful that our cancer center in New Jersey has a partnership with Sloan-Kettering. I found out about Hodgkin’s International through a friend of mine who was diagnosed during her late adolescence.
Now I have regular PET scans and doctor appointments. I always worry, because the threat is there. I’ve seen how important it is to get to specialists and to be vigilant about check-ups. After five years, I had a colonoscopy, and they found five non-cancerous polyps, which were removed.
At one point, I had a problem breathing, so I saw an ear, nose and throat specialist who determined I had a fungus–about the size of a mushroom–growing in my sinus. He removed it surgically. He told me this was a result of my low immune system; something got in there, found a home and grew. Nothing could fight it.
How are you doing these days?
The rest of the story is that I’m happy, living in New Jersey and still teaching, and my wife and I love going to the Berkshires every summer. My daughter formed a club called “Ricky’s Riders,” one of many riding clubs that raise funds for research at Sloan-Kettering. Each year, we raise $15,000-20,000. Many friends from my working world support this effort.
I’ve had a great career. I dropped out of Suffolk Law School in order to attend Brandeis University, which had one of the top theater programs at the time. After graduating, I went directly to New York–and Broadway. I was in “Fiddler on the Roof,” starring Zero Mostel and then “Candide.” I soon pivoted to working in clubs with “Richard Aaron in That’s Entertainment.” My manager got me on the Catskills circuit and on cruise ships. Once my first child was born, I began doing events. I helped start the industry by defining event planning as a profession, launched BizBash Media and created an event society that became a 2,000-member global organization.
I feel lucky. I’m trying to stay as healthy as I can so I can enjoy my grandkids’ bar mitzvahs and weddings. But I do know that the horizon always has a sunset.