Zachary William (off-stage, he’s Zachary Zortman) was a local artist and musician who had begun to focus on family and a career when the sudden diagnosis of anaplastic astrocytoma pulled his life into sudden, sharp focus, and rededication to music and art. We interviewed him about the writing of his song, “Meant to Live,” which was inspired by his journey with a brain tumor; his life; and what he hopes other patients and survivors will take away from the song.
What was your life before diagnosis?
I always wanted to do something in front of a lot of people or that was heard by a lot of people. I entered college wanting to get into acting or communications. I had a radio show while I was a freshman and sophomore at Shippensburg University, but it didn’t work out. I basically got kicked out of the communications department and “settled” to be a psychology major, as my brother had been one. At the time, my interest in it was so/so. I also minored in theater and really enjoyed it. During that time, I began singing in a few bands and messing around on the piano.
After graduating from Shippensburg, I spent the next two years working in a factory for my uncle, which I am grateful for because it gave me the ability to take a little time to think about what my true dreams and calling were. I started up my own band, we were called “The AKT.” I was also going to grad school at West Chester University for School Counseling. I am a certified school counselor today (PK-12). I had discovered during those two or so years at the factory that I always enjoyed talking to people and helping them overcome their problems. After six or so years, the band decided to break up on good terms, after winning a good bit of local awards and competitions. I was diagnosed with Grade 2-3 anaplastic astrocytoma a month after we disbanded.
How were you diagnosed?
I was driving in my car with my now fiancée, Annie, and I had about a forty-five seconds? lapse in my ability to speak. Annie demanded that she take the wheel and took me to the hospital. I was given a CT scan at Chester County Hospital and they determined I had a tumor. Annie and I had just moved to Phoenixville, PA three months earlier to focus on starting a family. I never had a headache prior to the diagnosis. I had what is called a “gross total resection” in which all visible tumor is removed. After the surgery, I learned that the tumor was cancerous and I needed to get proton therapy at Penn Medicine. Post-radiation, we moved back to York, PA, as we had to quit our jobs in Phoenixville while doing radiation every day. I needed Annie to drive me. I’m now undergoing chemotherapy until August.
Dr. Zarina Ali was my neurosurgeon and I owe my life to her and her team. In addition to my neurosurgeon, I have Dr. Alonso-Basanta as my radiologist and Dr. Arati Desai is my oncologist. They are terrific.
How has your life been like, day-to-day, since your diagnosis?
My day-to-day recovery has been very good, I believe. Immediately after my surgery, I could not talk and had to get speech and memory therapy, which was very helpful. They introduced me to Lumosity and I still play the game to this day. It is very helpful and keeps my mind busy and in-tune. I am still on chemotherapy, and will be placed on higher dosages as I go. In general, my response to chemo has been great. I do not feel very tired most days and get plenty of sleep. I have completely changed my diet and this definitely helped me through the radiation process. I changed my diet to 70-75% fruits and vegetables, 15-20% fish/crab, and 5-10% white meat with occasional beef. I try to eat about 80% organic, certainly with anything that is a dairy product.
What inspired you to write the song?
The melody of this song was written a long time ago when I first started taking up the piano. I played at a competition while at Shippensburg and the song was then titled “Alright,” ironically dedicated to my aunt who passed of cancer. Many years later, I kept the intro but changed most lyrics and the chorus. Ultimately, the song was re-written and re-composed for everyone that has had to endure the test of cancer in some way. My diagnosis has deeply impacted my family and friends, but for me, it has been the most beautiful past five or so months of my life. Yes, cancer is not something I wish upon anyone, but it also opens your eyes, ears, and will to do something great.
had been a well-known, local singer and performer prior to my diagnosis, and then my ability to speak and sing was temporarily taken from me. When I was able to get those things back, I felt like I had an obligation to perform again and do even better than I did before I knew I had a tumor in my head. I might not be able to talk or sing again one day. A lot of people find a lot of joy in me singing and my music. That is what inspires me. The happiness I bring to others as a result of my creations. This song has already made many, many people feel good.
I want other cancer survivors, patients, and caregivers to find hope, courage, and inspiration from “Meant to Live” and my journey. My journey against this cancer is far from over, but I do know that I have already beat it, regardless of what it does to me moving forward. This is because of how I have lived after I was told I have cancer and will continue to live knowing it is prevalent in my life. Different people have different ways of responding to such a crisis, but I do know that in order to be successful with anything, your mindset must be in a forward, positive direction that leaves no room for negativity. You must make the best of the hand you have been given. A little faith goes a long way as well.