'I Know Where I'm Going'
A young cancer survivor reflects on spirituality, music, and the power of intention.
New York City native Matthew Zachary was a young, gifted pianist who dreamed of composing film scores. But during his senior year of college, everything changed when he was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. After a seven hour surgery, he began an intense round of chemotherapy which left him weakened and depressed. He ultimately chose not to undergo a further round of chemotherapy and instead focused on regaining his ability to play the piano. In 2000, he released his first album of original material, 'Scribblings.' He founded the website I'mTooYoungforThis.org
, to provide resources for other young cancer survivors.
Today, Zachary's cancer is in remission, he performs his music around the country, and he puts his energy into helping young people cope with cancer. He talks to Beliefnet about faith, mantras, and the healing power of music.
What are your goals with I'm Too Young for This?
I'm here to tackle what we do with these people who are going to get cancer, and how do we make it as easy as possible to eliminate the burden. Because odds are they're going to live, but odds are they're going to have many problems, Medicines today are very similar to the HIV cocktail; they keep the cancer in check. There's a huge backlash against these organizations that keep shoveling the word "cure" into our brains when no one really even knows what that means anymore. It's just an arbitrary term, because we don't feel cured. There are 25,000 people who log onto I'mTooYoungforThis.org that feel that way about it, who don't Relay For Life and don't Walk For The Cure, don't yawn and knit and saunter for the cure. They're all about quality of life, socially networking with other people and sharing their bitch parade about what's wrong.
What is your faith background? Did your faith change during and after your treatment?
I grew up Jewish. My parents were modern Conservative, I would say, more--less about the God and more about the culture, and more about sort of the spirituality of it and the ideas of family
and community and tzedekah
. When I got sick, I never asked, "Why me," and I never asked "Dear God, what the hell are you doing to me," you know? When you're 21 you don't know what's going on anyway, you're in a place where you can't even find yourself to begin with, so how do you find yourself when this stuff happens? You really start searching.
And I actually went to my rabbi, who came to the hospital to visit me and had been my family rabbi for 20 years. And, even he was like, "this is about your own ability to make your own decisions. There's no right or wrong here." I explored Buddhism
, and I did explored Zen, and I explored Shinto, and I explored, you know, some of the tenets of basic Christianity
really became that element for me, became my dogma. I was so blessed to just have this channel of energy to put out there to the universe, and this is me. This is my legacy. I can write music. I can put what I feel into sound, and other people will hear that energy.
Do you have any particular mantras or prayers that helped you get through treatment?
I had a mantra that I came up with while I was in treatment, and I wound up printing out hundreds of pieces of paper and literally wallpapering my bedroom with this mantra in all different fonts and colors and stuff like that. You couldn't see anything in my room. The walls were just literally wallpapered with these--with the same slogan. And the slogan was, "Everything that happens to you, whether you like it or not, becomes a part of your life, and you must live your life and be the best you can be every step of the way, because what choice do you have?"
Do you believe that prayer has any healing properties?
My first cousin is a rabbi. He happened to be in Jerusalem in January of '96, and he led a minyan at the Wailing Wall on my day of surgery. I believe in prayer because that has nothing to do with God. It's about human intention. You put yourself out there. You send some energy out to the universe.
Everyone has to make whatever decision gives them comfort and gives them hope, and helps them find some sort of acceptance within their own spirit and their own life. I've never been in a better place in my life spiritually. I know where I'm going. And if I die tomorrow, I'll know what I've left. And not many people can get there, and I think that that's something people need to think more about.
If you have a means to express yourself, like, creatively, whether it's a blog or writing music or writing poetry or an essay or a book, you need to use that. That's the most important tool you have as a human being. And I could go on and say God gave us the power to think, but whatever, you know? You have the power to express yourself. Use it. We're the only species that does this, so why not take advantage of it?
What do you believe healing means? What does it mean to you to be healed?
I guess my first response would be that life is a long-term healing process, that death is healing. And the healing never ends. I don't think anyone can ever really be healed. And that's not a negative thing.
I think from a cognitive or a spiritual perspective, you're never really healed because your goal should be to better yourself and improve your contributions to society and make good on your purpose on this planet.
So, if there's always going to be changing influences in your life and decisions, healing has to catch up to that. So, I don't think there's ever a conclusive end to that, you know? I think healing is in the mind of the person being healed.
Interview by Lilit Marcus