Sunday Conversation with … Tom Willner Cancer survivor’s musical explores disease, life

A diagnosis of cancer doesn’t generally cause people to break into song. But that’s what Tom Willner did after learning he had testicular cancer on the cusp of his thirtieth birthday. In fact, he wrote a whole musical about it. “I’ve always been a musician. One of the ways that I dealt with the whole ordeal was to write it to music,” said Willner, whose day job coincidentally is director of web development for the American Cancer Society. Over the past five years, “Turning Thirty, The Musical” has played in various venues at various times for various charitable causes around town. Now 43 and cancer free for some time, Willner has raised $10,000 and is making a big push to get the musical picked up by a local or regional theater. This coming week, the Virginia Highland resident is hosting a workshop with theater professionals, followed by a June 10 showcase performance that is free and open to the public. For more on Willner’s journey with cancer, and the musical it inspired, visit turningthirty.org.

Q: Who wants to see a musical about cancer?

A: Cancer affects nearly everyone in some way, and I think the subject has become less and less taboo. People have become more willing to address it for what it is — a health problem that we need to get rid of. Plus, the musical not only addresses cancer but getting older. My wife and I didn’t have kids at the time so cancer brought that discussion to the forefront.

Q: You conceived three children through in vitro fertilization. Were you worried that you weren’t going to be around for them?

A: There is a scene in the musical that touches on this. My wife said she always wanted to have kids and she wanted to have kids with me. If I lost my battle with cancer, she said, there would be a piece of me in them. That really struck a chord with me.

Q: Did cancer fundamentally change your outlook on life or do people just say that?

A: It does change your perspective. Before cancer, my wife and I were Type A career path people. I used to get upset over some of the silliest things that come with normal daily life. Now those things seem precious to me. And just being here is pretty damn cool.

Q: How would you describe your musical?

A: It is an honest portrayal of what a cancer survivor experiences, with all the emotions from fear and denial to determination and triumph. I’ve heard it described as a rock opera, though it does include many different styles of music. It has also been called a dramedy - part drama, part comedy. The particular type of cancer I had — testicular — does lend itself to jokes. Humor played a big part for me dealing with cancer.

Q: You work for the American Cancer Society. You are pushing your musical about cancer. Don’t you worry about tempting fate?

A: My wife and I have always had a “to do” list. There’s the standard stuff on there like yard work. After cancer, we added things like “have kids” and “cure cancer,” meaning my cancer. I do not feel right five years, even 10 years, later crossing that off. There’s a good chance it is gone forever but there is always a risk.

Q: What are your aspirations for your musical?

A: To be totally honest, I would like to be working on my Tony acceptance speech. Or attending the musical’s debut on Broadway or in London. I realize that there is a long path and a lot of hard work ahead.

The Sunday Conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at ann.hardie@ymail.com.

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