The Crusader Newspaper Group

UC Medicine helps famed Gary pianist battle cancer

By Glenn Reedus, Gary Crusader

Many people hear the name Billy Foster and their thoughts turn to jazz and the piano. Not many however realize it is the music that is helping the former Gary Community Schools teacher successfully battle what might be a serious medical setback to someone else. Foster credits his music and the right mental attitude for being able to live a relatively normal life, although he has been struck by a series of cancers.

He related that 11 years after having a cancerous kidney removed and five successive years of clear checkups he was shocked to learn that his lung and liver were affected. It also had metastasized to his brain. That was 2015 and fortunately laser surgery successfully removed those brain lesions.

For so many, according to Foster, that initial diagnosis of cancer brings on immediate thoughts of death. “That’s understandable,” he offered, “but right away I told myself you need to get a grip on your mind.” He added, “Going down in the doldrums doesn’t help at all.”

Billy Foster smiling1
Billy Foster at the piano

Foster had every reason to be discouraged given that when he initially began treatment for his cancer in 2007 there hadn’t been a lot of research completed on its treatment, he noted. The treatment he received didn’t slow the pace of his cancer’s growth and being exceptionally sick had become the norm.

His fortunes turned when a University of Chicago Medical Center doctor suggested Foster participate in a new clinical trial for a different cancer drug. The new regimen reversed the problems he was having and the cancer stabilized. The drug was discontinued four years ago, and replaced with another.

According to UC Medical’s Dr. Russell Szmulewitz, assistant professor of medicine, “What we’re trying to do is transition these stage 4 illnesses into chronic diseases that can be managed with medications over years as was the case with Mr. Foster.” “Even though it’s stage 4, and it has been for nearly a decade, it’s managed like any other advanced chronic illness, like diabetes or high blood pressure or heart disease, with medications that have kept it stable in a non-life threatening stage.”

Kidney cancer, said Szmulewitz, is often caught early when a patient is undergoing imaging for another reason. However, despite early treatment, the disease can resurface years later. Conventional kidney cancer is called clear cell, but Foster’s is the more aggressive papillary variant. There are no true standard treatments for papillary kidney cancer and Foster’s robust response to treatment is unusual and promising.

“There are studies ongoing that are combining medications like axitinib with immunotherapies, so that’s something that we look forward to seeing in the future,” Szmulewitz noted.

The new treatment, a positive mindset, and his music are the vehicles Foster rides to avoid obsessing about his condition.

“The music and my activities keep me busy. At this point I am not focusing on it (the cancer) at all. One of those activities is his Jazz Zone show on WGVE 88.7 FM.

Foster explained another aspect of dealing with the disease mentally is accepting that “many things change. You have to come to grips with life is not going to be like it was. This is a new life, you have to figure out ways to go ahead and deal with that. Being a cancer patient is also time consuming, doctor appointments, take the meds, get the scan. If you feel you have things to do and want to be around you just adjust.”

He added, “Some things are not as important to you as they used to be. You find out who your friends are, and your thinking changes. You learn some things from this experience. The one thing that I would like to do even more of is speaking engagements. It seems like when you share your story it seems to be helpful to other cancer patients.” He said he does an annual radio show dedicated to speaking about being a cancer patient.

He said he and his wife, who performs with him, still travel nearly every week to do shows. “The cancer hasn’t slowed me down. If anything, it’s the economy that is the reason we don’t do more shows.”

The retired music teacher opted out of opining about the current state of the American health insurance debate. He did say that his insurance payments seemed steep at $2,000 per month, but when the cost for his medicine reached $6,000 for a 30-day supply, “$2,000 seemed like a deal.” He takes his pills every night without fail. “It only takes a minute to take the pills and it seems to me that you can give up a minute a day to save your life. If I didn’t have the kind of insurance I do, the outcome probably would have been very different.”

The cost of cancer medicine was one of the points Foster spoke on last year when the American Association of Cancer Research sent three patients to Capitol Hill. They also discussed more funding for cancer research and the cost of oral medications.

Both Fosters will continue as evangelists for overcoming cancer as they have been pegged as members of the UC Medical Center’s patient advisory board for a new cancer center the hospital’s oncology department is planning.

Compliance with doctor’s orders and having a strong support system are key, Foster said, adding that his wife has been an incredible source of support and that he couldn’t have gotten this far without her help and support.

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