Matthew Zachary was 21 when his left hand quit working. After months of misdiagnoses, doctors found a brain tumor. Specialists treated his cancer, which hasn’t recurred. But the experience changed him irrevocably. “I lost my life, but I didn’t die,” he says.
A serious pianist since age 11, Zachary, now 44, had thought he would spend his life working in film, composing music scores. But the fine motor skills in his left hand never fully returned, ending any chance he could pursue his dream career.
“When you are a pianist and a composer, you use both hands,” he says. “Also, I am left-handed.”
Many of his friends drifted away, in part because they couldn’t handle his cancer and also because they were ready to move on, even when he couldn’t. He lost a lot of weight, and his hair, and he lived on a liquid diet for six months. He needed 17 medications to manage the side effects of radiation.
All that was bad enough. Even worse was his persistent feeling of isolation, both while he was in the hospital and during the years that followed. There was no one he could talk to about his fears, no emotional support for people in his age group. “I was miserable, anxious, depressed and moribund,” he says. Moreover, hospital settings were not designed for cancer patients in their 20s who were too old for toy-filled pediatric wards and too young for the nondescript rooms that seemed more suitable for older patients. Although he wasn’t hospitalized for long periods, he recalls spending a week in a hospital room “full of 80-year-olds,” he says.