Robert Franz, 54, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October 2021.
Yet the musical director continued to lead the Windsor Symphony Orchestra (WSO).
“I knew I had to keep making music,” says Franz. “Making music is part of who I am.”
Franz tells CTV News he first noticed a ‘tingle’ in his left hand last summer, but attributed it to getting back to leading as pandemic restrictions began to ease. soften.
Over time, Franz says the pain spread to his left arm. He says he has tried therapeutic massage and chiropractic treatments, even nerve blockers.
“Nothing helped,” said Franz. “The pain had just gotten out of control in my left arm. I mean I was still leading but I was using Icy Hot [pain reliever] and it was awful. I was doing everything I could just to get a gig.
By the time he went to see a doctor, Franz said the pain had spread to his right leg.
“I thought I had arthritis because I had difficulty walking in my right leg. It turns out that my right leg was riddled with this cancer,” says Franz.
Doctors diagnosed him with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I had a 10 centimeter tumor on my left shoulder.”
“The day they said, ‘Robert, we think you have cancer,’ it all calmed down, didn’t it?” Franz said. “They kept talking but I have no idea what they said after that.”
“And in my mind, I’m thinking ‘Okay, is this the end? What am I doing? Am I planning?’” Franz says.
Franz turned to his first true love – music.
“I knew I had to keep making music. Making music is part of who I am,” says Franz. “There were many days where what kept me going was that I had loads of things to learn upstairs. That I had music that I wanted to know. That I was doing music, that I listened to concerts.
Incredibly, Franz continued to work throughout his six weeks of chemotherapy treatment.
“The direction I made was in between [chemo treatments]. This is how my blood cells and my blood count came back to a doable level,” explains Franz.
All he gave up was his out-of-town conducting gigs with other orchestras, because his immune system “was shot” and he was under constant and close surveillance by the Windsor Regional Cancer Center medical team.
Franz says that halfway through his treatment, the pain disappeared, “once the tumor freed itself from the nerve bundle”.
He admits the side effects of the drugs were difficult. One of the weirdest being the hiccups he had from a particular medication.
“Like you think ‘Okay, yeah, hiccups are a big deal’. [But] when you have hiccups for seven days in a row and the last three days last 24 hours [a day] solid? What’s happening is you have acid reflux, you have pain in your chest, [and] you lose your voice. It’s bad,” says Franz.
With the help of a supportive family, his music and the staff at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre, Franz says he is doing “very well”.
“I completed my six cycles of chemo and my CT scan at the end of six cycles came back clean, which is truly phenomenal,” he says.
There is only one last scan left to determine if the cancer is gone and Franz hopes to be in remission.
Franz admits there have been times over the past six months when he was overwhelmed with emotion as he led the orchestra on stage, saying: “Luckily I had a mask on because I I was just crying and moaning underneath.”
But he wouldn’t have done it any other way.
“It was my moment to stop being a cancer patient and be a musician again – and that was vital,” says Franz.
There are only two weekends left in the WSO season. Franz seems delighted not only to finish this season, but he is also looking forward to what they have planned for next season.
“I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I should just stay home and wait for this to go away.’ I was like, ‘How can I get out and live in the world again?’ Franz said.