Money Is For Chocolate And The Zits Are Free: The Return Of My Kidney Cancer

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I think the old adage goes “write from what you know”. If that’s not an old adage, it should be.

So, taking my own sage advice, passed down through the ages by everyone and no one, here goes nothing. And here goes everything for a very tense but still hopeful year.

First of all, the Philadelphia Phillies are making me have a big sad. I love baseball, and yes, I still love my Phillies, but as of right now, they are eleventeen games below .500 and are probably going to have trouble catching a cold, let alone a playoff spot. It’s reached the point where Ruben Amaro Jr, my candidate for “WTF GM Of The Year” has to start thinking fire sale and trot out another old adage: “Wait Until Next Year”, which I am pretty certain is REALLY an old adage and not one of my own brilliant thoughts. Unless there are royalties attached to it, then make all checks payable to “ME”.

That “wait until next year” is the part that causes the motions and emotions to write this blog. A couple of months ago, that phrase terrified me. For those of you who may have been playing along with the home version of my life, you already know the spoilers for this blogpost, but for the rest, a recap.

milk_chocolateLet’s start with chocolate. Not just any chocolate, but HERSHEY’S KISSES. And it is not Easter, yet I am talking sugar sweetness and candy. As many of you know, I take great pride in my 27 year legacy in the home video business. I’ve talked about it with many of you, many more of you that I worked with have shared this business and success with me, and some of you who shared this business with me are now pretty invisible. But that’s a story for another day.

However, the chocolate part of this story, as well as the opportunity to reawaken my business skills by working on the HAVERFORD SPRING FEST helped to keep everything else this year in good perspective.

When we last left my story, you know that I had to retire due to a lung disease. I’ve never smoked, so of course, I get a lung disease. I’ve been battling a progressive beast for 4 years now and frankly, I am frakking proud of how I’ve managed to control it so that I can still be just a smidgen useful to others.

Then, last February, I had to have my right kidney removed because I had developed Kidney Cancer. I had written about that battle in these posts, so feel free to backtrack and read these, then jump back and join the tour here at this spot.

I’ll wait right here.

Dealing With My Kidney Cancer (Part One): The Serious and The Humorous

Dealing With My Kidney Cancer (Pt. 2): My Doctor Asked Me “AM I DISAPPOINTED?”

Hey, now, welcome back. So, as you can see by both the blog posts and my time spent on Facebook and Twitter, this operation appeared to be a success. I felt better, I lost weight, and I felt like I was ready to put this behind me.

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Fast forward to this year. In January, I took my usual three month scans and follow-ups, and aside from a benign nodule on my thyroid, all seemed to be OK. So good in fact, I went out and ate chocolate. And got paid for it.

I’ve been many things in the last four years, not the least of which is bored to tears. I miss working so much, and everyone who bitches on Monday morning about going to work, you have my envy, not my sympathy. So, I am always looking for something to do. One of these is a local focus group. In February, they offered me the opportunity to come to their Bala Cynwyd offices and eat chocolate and crackers for four days. And get paid $160 for it. Tell me again about dream jobs.

I went four days in a row, for about 1 hour a day, and ate a total of 93 Hershey Kisses and 28 crackers. The kisses looked like regular Hershey Kisses but each one had a different taste, smoothness, meltiness, and varying foil wraps. The idea was to answer questions about the quality, packaging, and differences between samples. But the more I ate these, I realized that the consistency of my answers over the entire four day stretch was more important than the way I thought sample number #269 tasted.

It was tough, but I completed the mission, took my money, and paid bills. I said it was tasty, not a gold mine.

This was my life through mid-March. Then came my next scan.

You know how they tell you NOT to diagnose yourself by looking things up on the internet? Good advice.

indexI took the scan on March 20th. It was a couple of weeks early, but I was seeing my oncologist on April 8th and wanted to make sure that he had current results. My hospital has a web portal that allows me to access my medical tests about 48 hours after they are done. So, I saw the test results on March 23rd, before talking with my doctor. Even for a layperson, I saw that there was something not quite right about it. Especially when I hit the words…

POSSIBLE RENAL CELL CARCINOMA.

Yeah, I’m gonna say the bad word. I shouted “FUCK!”. All my hard work to try and keep on top of my disease, and all the hope I had for the last year as it seemed that kidney cancer was in the rearview mirror was gone. And yes, I looked things up before I heard back from my doctor. Again, a mistake.

I finally talked with him, he set up an MRI and I saw him for the results on April 8th. As much as I was chomping at the bit to look up the results, I waited for him. And my fears were confirmed. It looked like there was some cancerous activity that was now in my liver. Of course, I rarely drink, so I developed a disease in my liver. The trick is that it is the return of kidney cancer, since it had the same markers as my previous cancer. That meant that while I was treating the liver, the liver was simply living the past of my kidney.

I had the biopsy done, which was a surprisingly calm and easy procedure: in the hospital at 7 AM, out just after 12 Noon, and with a free lunch!

As a matter of fact, while I was worried up until this time, I was still fairly calm. That all changed once the diagnosis was confirmed. And this is where many of you may know the story already. I simply went into a panicked funk. I was scared out of my skull. I had no idea what would come next, I had no idea if I would wake up the next day. When I would go out, I would look at a street sign that I saw every day and wonder if I’d see it tomorrow.

0175d71c08edfdf5352130d45909070a8fac3cc2d2I worried about my brother Tommy, and whether he would hate me if I got sick or worse. I worried about my sister, who has been my godsend and my lifeline through all of this. She is amazing but she deals with everyday problems and concerns with the toughness, grace, and caring that were now so needed by me.

I worried about the rest of my family and I worried about Swiper, my doxy buddy. He and I have become very close and I’ve been told how he waits for me to come home. I was worried about disappointing him someday.

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I worried about friends and others who have been there for me. I worried about going to see my favorite comedian Craig Shoemaker, who can make me laugh in spite of anything. I worried about going to an IN THE POCKET concert, since I spent some of the time wondering if I’d have another chance to enjoy that amazing music.

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I was afraid to commit to anything. Friends wanted me to go out, people wanted me to enjoy something with them, my family wanted to invite me over. I got really annoyed when people would say to me that you don’t know if you would be hit by a car tomorrow. Yes, that is true, but you also don’t sit and think 24/7 about the possibility of that car the next day.

I made excuses for most of these invites and attempts, I begged off, and I simply was too afraid to live to realize that I still had a lot to live for.

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Then came something that topped those Hershey Kisses (and that $160). That was the HAVERFORD SPRING FEST. Back in my youthful days, I went to Villanova University and spent way too much fun time at the campus radio station WKVU 640 AM. Besides a number of great people, I met Tom Kelly there. Tom had forged a damn impressive career in the radio business and is now the founder of iradiophilly.com, an online streaming music service with over 20 themed channels that have actual personality and thought behind them.

Tom has also been a very big civic booster in my adopted hometown of Havertown PA and has been the driving force behind the HAVERFORD MUSIC FEST, a town-wide fall music event. Tom invited me to help plan a spring music and arts festival that would focus on a one block business district. I was tasked with doing the social media and public relations for the fest. That meant things I was familiar with, like Twitter and Facebook, as well as things I was very rusty in, such as media contacts and press releases.

This coincided with my funk over the spread of my kidney cancer, and I’ll be honest, I was ready to drop out because my confidence was shattered and my spirit was non-existent. Tom talked honestly with me and helped me sort out a few feelings.

All of this came along at the right time, because the more I talked it out and learned, the calmer I became. I didn’t lose the underlying fear of what could happen but I did learn that I can’t give up the “now” for one possible scenario in the future. At the same time, my medical efforts moved from the diagnosis into the realm of treating and dealing with my kidney cancer.

What you should know is that my doctor was honest and told me that there is no cure, but also told me that “no cure” does NOT equate with “no hope”. We devised a treatment plan with the goals to stop the tumor growth and spread, shrink the existing nodules and get me into remission. Definitely not a “home free” scenario, but a scenario with a definite chance for a good future.

20090922062143205We started a weekly chemo session with a drug called TORISEL. You knew this wouldn’t be easy, right? TORISEL was chosen to start with because he has confidence in it, and because we have to be careful what drugs to use to have the least effect on my lung disease. One of the side effects of the drug is developing a possible “interstitial lung fibrosis”, which I already had. Since there had been no tests done with this drug on people who already have this ILD lung disease, there is no way of knowing if the drug would make the existing lung problems worse. So, stepped up monitoring by my team of lung doctors is now part of the plan.

The good news is that after 7 treatments, I have suffered only minor side effects and nothing that shut me down for any length of time, so I’ve been able to live a slightly modified but normal (for me) life. I even drove myself to Chambersburg PA on a Saturday to see the wedding of my dear friend Jessica Ownes-DeShong and see some of my old Dunder Mifflin Infinity Allentown friends. After the 12th treatment, I’ll do scans again and we will see how effective the treatment is and plan next steps. (Update of as 10/16/14. I’ve now had 23 treatments. Despite two recent hospital stays, and more than enough turkey sandwiches, thank you, I am stable and still bopping around.  Good stuff.)

However, I feel really good and if I didn’t know what I had, I’d not notice any of the little body aches and effects that aren’t that bad. People tell me I look good and that makes me happy, because I don’t believe it is lip service, I believe it to be true. And I’ve been given permission to lose 10-15 pounds, which is like winning the lottery for me right now. (No, it really isn’t, I’d like the POWERBALL jackpot, too, please.)

The Haverford SPRING FEST was held on a gorgeous Sunday, May 18th, on Brookline Blvd from Noon to 7. We had six performers play from the stage (see the graphic below) and we drew 8,500 PEOPLE!!! EIGHT THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED PEOPLE CAME TO ENJOY THE DAY THAT I HAD A HAND IN PRODUCING.

Damn, that felt good and showed that I have lost nothing more than a little time spent worrying about what might happen and not noticing all that was happening all around me.

So, why did I write this blog post? Because I have to be honest with everyone. Because I have to be honest with myself. Maybe I share too much, but that is simply how I am. I believe that I am one hell of a package that needs very little dressing up and inflating.

Plus I need pants (my close friends will know what that means.)

And maybe more chocolate.

Thanks to everyone for your patience with this patient so far. Keep following me and being my friend for the next 20-30 years and see where we can take each other.

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Watch a little after the 3 minute mark for a nice treat. ;)

Bucket List: Me And My Farfisa VIP 255

I’ve decided to work on some variations of a BUCKET LIST, since I tend to think about these things a lot anymore. This LIST entry is things I’d love to experience again from my past.

This is the lost love of my life, a FARFISA VIP 255 organ. More on that further on, but here is a video showing some of the sounds from this amazing keyboard. At the end of this post is a video from a song that used the Farfisa.

Yes, I am musical. If my love of music hasn’t shown itself to you yet on Twitter and Facebook, then you are not paying attention. I come from a musical family. All of us showed some promise, led by the absolutely gorgeous soprano voice of my mother, Juliana.

My mother, Juliana Hickman, singing THE LORD IS MY SHEPARD circa 1960’s

The first instrument that I actually took up was the trumpet, complete with blowing out my cheeks (a definite no-no) and a very active spit valve. I was adequate, and I played with my grade school and high school bands at OUR LADY OF LOURDES and ST. TOMMY MORE in Philly. In 1965, our band traveled to the NEW YORK WORLDS FAIR and we played in a pavilion that I remember as being very near to the IT’S A SMALL WORLD exhibit.

However, my true love was the keyboard. When I was around 7, I remember getting an electric toy organ for Christmas. Somewhere, there is a picture of my smiling while playing it. It had a small keyboard and white push button chord keys. A definite low end toy, but still, an organ.

I took piano lessons a couple of blocks from my house, and sometimes actually practiced. I developed a love of BELA BARTOK, DEBUSSY, and CHOPIN. At the same time, I was listening to both my parents music, hence a healthy love of music from the 40’s and country, as well as my older brothers records, hence my love of THE BEATLES and 60’s music. Because my brother already had them, I wound up buying variations of the LP’s that he had, like THE CHIPMUNKS SING THE BEATLES.

I also attended the SETTLEMENT MUSIC SCHOOL in Germantown (Philly). I took both lessons and music theory there for 4 years. This was back when SEPTA’S Route 65 was the E-Bus (and it always will be to me). Used to travel up two days a week, and then grab a fresh soft pretzel or maybe a quick sandwich at the Linton’s while the bus laid over at Germantown and Chelten.

Flash forward to high school and 1969. Music had come a long way in the 60’s and by the time I decided that I wanted to play in a rock group, THE BEATLES were already near to calling it quits. High school allowed me to meet up with others who shared a common love of music, and we decided to form a rock group.

Originally, we took a very 60’s name, MIND BODY AND SOUL (a Flaming Embers hit), but we later changed our name to THE JIM RASCAL BAND. “Jim” came from our manager, JIM MAYER, who also called us “rascals”. We thought it was clever to have a non-existent front man the group was named after. At the same time, my love for the trumpet and growing love of jazz and brass, led by groups like BLOOD SWEAT AND TEARS, took my music in that direction. RASCAL started out as a wedding band, making $40 per person per gig. Our first event was a wedding at the Talleyville fire hall in Talleyville, Delaware. We played many such events and we were actually pretty good. We played what people expected at the events, right down to me playing TENDERLY way too many times.


As with most bands of the sixties and seventies, we were nomadic when we practiced. We played in so many basements that had we played in one more, we would have been reclassified as subterranean. The problem with playing in a basement in the neighborhood was that we could not really play loud and also we were all close enough to our homes to drift away during break times and come back way too late.

The stroke of luck for us was that our bass player’s dad owned a deli in Ambler PA, just across from the Ambler Theater. Yes, this deli had a basement, but it had no neighbors, hence we could rock with abandon. Our practices went much better without the “at home” distractions. In fact, even refreshments were better, since we could shop right upstairs for something to snack on and drink. Our own little supply house.

We practiced there for a majority of our existence, and were always good residents of the town, except when the weather was nice on Sundays and we set up our own Amblerpaloozas in the parking lot out back to practice. Crank it up, we said. Shut it off, Ambler police said.

I also played a few other times where I wasn’t supposed to, like the time we had a retreat at a Vincentian seminary and yes, I decided that the chapel organ would sound great if I played IN A GADDA DA VIDA.

At one point, I owned a MELLOTRON, which was essentially a keyboard equipped with a lot of tape players. The MELLOTRON could make the sounds of a violin, flute, and other orchestra sounds. The tape lengths were 8 seconds long each. Groups like THE MOODY BLUES used these. I also owned a basic Moog synthesizer, but I was not very good at playing that.

And we did the usual “rock group in the making” things. When we were in Wildwood, NJ for Senior Week 1973, we all had T-shirts made as band shirts. In retrospect, I should have had the word “keyboards” printed on the back, instead of “organ”. Playing the “organ” on the shirt inspired way too many bad jokes that week.

That week is kind of a blur. We stayed in the Elna Ray Motel and bought supplies when we first arrived, with special attention given to liquid refreshments. The problem was in the way we built our shopping list and managed our money. A lot of money at the beginning of the week is not as much as you thought it was by the middle of the week. By then, with the milk gone, cereal was made edible with some less homogenized and more prooferized. Tasted like crap, but we drank all the liquid left over in the cereal bowl, just like mom said.

We spent most of the time together as the group, wearing those ill-thought band shirts. We wound up spending about two hours inside the haunted house on Morey’s Pier. Not going through it, but finding places to hide and scare both patrons and the real workers. We ate a lot of pizza. We followed people home like lost puppies. One night, we met up with some girls and celebrated another girls birthday, I have no idea who. We fell asleep there, falling asleep on plastic upholstered furniture. Like sleeping on a dry swimming pool liner.

Of course, it was also at this time that I was able to buy a magnificent organ, the FARFISA VIP 255. I also was able to get the greatest organ speaker ever, a LESLIE 125, with the spinning horn. Short of owning a HAMMOND B-3, this was the most magnificent sound I had ever heard. This double keyboard beauty rocked, pure and simple. I was so in love.

THE JIM RASCAL BAND was together for almost 6 years. At one point, we numbered 7 members, with a three person horn section. I used to write the charts for them, and I loved doing that. While we were never famous, we did do a number of things that I will always treasure. We decided to write our own songs, some of which are now forgotten, but a couple still play in my head every day, like THE COURTYARD. I got to improvise an opening and middle solo on that one.

Of course, being young and naïve, we decided to record these songs. We booked two days at the old QUEEN VILLAGE RECORDING STUDIOS run by the great WALT KAHN. We made the major mistake of wanting to record an entire LP in those two days, instead of concentrating on a couple of songs and drilling them down to get them right. The finished product was very good, at least by my standards, but those couple of stand outs could have been so much better. Up until about 15 years ago, I had a copy of these, but it is gone and sadly unavailable. If anyone reading this finds a copy, I will owe you my all.

The second major rookie mistake: we thought the two day product was ready to be pitched to record companies. At the time, WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic) had a regional office over near MAPLE SHADE, NEW JERSEY. We managed to hook up with a low level screener and met with him over there to show off our tape. He did listen to the whole thing and gave us honest advice, but as we met with him, we realized that we were not yet ready. We needed to work harder and keep learning.

We also looked for more places to play that were not weddings. This became a mixed bag. We wanted to play, so we took a lot of gigs that were a bit awkward, like when we played our own Junior Prom. Yeah, that wasn’t weird.

We also did some charity work for 56WFIL radio in Philly, such as playing for them at Broad and Walnut on OLD NEWSBOYS DAY. I still remember meeting the legendary JAY COOK at the WFIL studios so that he could give us the keys to a WFIL van to move our equipment down there.

Our biggest gig was also our final one, though we didn’t know it at the time. We received a call from WMMR radio that the PHILADELPHIA FLYERS were looking for some groups to perform at JFK STADIUM while the place was awaiting the arrival of the FLYERS 1974 Stanley Cup Parade, which was going to come down to the stadium on Broad Street.

We were thrilled, and put together a 20 minute set that included an amazing rousing version of I’M A MAN by Steve Winwood and by Chicago. We started it off by getting the crowd into a rhythmic FLYERS chant that set the beat for the bass opening of I’M A MAN. Imagine our thrill when tens of thousands of people chanted and clapped along!

Yes, the stands in this huge stadium were filled, and while they were there for the FLYERS, for a few minutes they were ours, all ours. Even better, the band that followed us was thePhilly legends PIECES OF A DREAM. Our I’M A MAN chant even made the evening news, as KYW broadcast a film of a camera car circling the stadium to show off the crowd just as we started the song.

Trust me, it still thrills me that for that one brief shining moment, we played where THE BEATLES played, and where LIVE AID, MICHAEL JACKSON, and so many other would play.

And, I touched the STANLEY CUP.

Shortly thereafter, we started to drift apart as the needs of college and work started to sober us up. We had our time and we had a great time during it. To my bandmates Louie, John, Ray, Mike, Carmen, Pompeo, Bob, and Jim, even though we haven’t seen each other in years, I still hear us every day in my mind.

I almost went into radio, but never did. I would have been good at that, as well. I was DON ADRIAN on the Villanova campus station WKVU and also was blessed to work on some comedy programming there with some very creative minds.

Now, I try to find music I love as well as hook up with groups and projects to seem to share my same musical drive, a love of what they are playing and an amazing appreciation for what has come before.

I really haven’t played in over 20 years and I am extremely rusty now. I’ve always wanted to get another keyboard, but every one I look at pales in comparison for my old FARFISA VIP 255. We were one when we made great music together. Someday, I’ll find another one and we will rock in front of the greatest crowd in the world, my music memories.

FARFISA VIP 255 Brief Audio Clip

THE FARFISA VIP 255 is supposedly used on DANCING DAYS by LED ZEPPLIN

A Wayback For My Brother Tommy’s 44th Birthday.

This was originally written in 1999. It was written shortly after he was diagnosed with kidney failure and spent over four years on dialysis. He had a successsful kidney transplant in 2004. When this was written, he had not yet started his decade long love affair with Kelly Ripa. At this time, he actually had a crush on Kitty Carlisle, of all people.

I sat with my brother Tommy and asked him what he would like to help me write about.

This was his blog post. I wrote it and he served as my verbal editor. We wrote this on GEOCITIES (remember that?) but the original page is long gone.

The only change is to remove any dead links.

Happy 44th Birthday, Tommy.

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(These are some of the friends that Tommy made at the concerts.)


There is more to read. Just click here.

For My Dad: On What Would Have Been His 91st Birthday

Below are links to previous blog posts about my Pop. Please read at least one to understand why he was so special to me and why, as I battle both a progressive lung disease and the aftermath a my radical nephrectomy for kidney cancer, I’ll always turn to my Pop for reasons to keep laughing and keep living.

If you hear me say something or see me do something, chances are I learned that from my Pop.

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That’s my Dad. You can call him “Rich”. His co-workers called him “Dick” but my mother always called him “Rich”. I called him “Pop” or “Dad”. For some reason, I don’t remember ever calling him “Daddy”. I never felt that word was strong enough for my Dad.

Calling him Dad was a real sign of respect from me, at least in my mind. When I would introduce him to people or talk to others about him, I always used “Dad”. “Pop” was more playful, more casual, more personal.

“Hey, Pop, do you want to go to the diner?”

“Hey, Pop, did you see the Phillies game last night?”

“What do you need at the store, Pop?”

“There aren’t any Christmas movies on TV in September, Pop. I checked.”

“Yeah, I can reset your watch, Pop.”

“A plain cheeseburger doesn’t mean that it comes without cheese, Pop. Don’t be mad at the server. Just order a plain hamburger.”

“You have to push the ‘TV’ button, then the “cable” button on the remote to make it work, Pop.” (Usually said with exasperation over the phone as I tried to work while he was mystified by the cable remote.)

“Tommy needs you, Pop.”

“I need you, Pop.”

“I miss you and love you, Pop.”

“Forever.”

One Year After My Dad

Dad’s Last Best Year : For Father’s Day

Dad at 15 days

Father’s Day Salute, to mine and yours…(updated for my dad’s 87th Birthday)

My Dad And Veterans Day

Dad and Tom at 1997 VSDA Convention

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There is more to read. Just click here.

My Other “Mother” On Mother’s Day. My Sister, Julie.

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Tomorrow I will honor my mother, but today, I want to honor in advance the person who has become almost as much of a mother to me as my own Mom.

That is my sister Juliana Hickman Guaraldo. Many of you know, but many can only begin to imagine the impact she has on all of our lives, especially mine during my illnesses. The compassion, the knowledge, the caring, the love that she offers, despite any aches, pains, and exhaustion from working to make sure the rest of us are well and safe is just beyond wonderful.

When I got my diagnosis of the recurrence of my kidney cancer, she was the one who listened to my doctors, patiently listened to my fears, and wonderfully calmed me down from my initial despair so that I can fight this mofo hard and win this battle. And win it, I will, with her right there with me.

Her compassion is legendary, as she also cares and teaches special needs children. No headache, no exhaustion, no detour stops her from being there for anyone who needs a hand.

Her friends love her, my friends admire her, and your friends would be blessed to know her.

She loves her dogs, she loves life. Music brings out the best in her, as does curling up on the couch with my niece, Julie, binge watching ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.

She can corral the largest group in total disarray and form them into a fun, accomplished and focused group. She makes sure everyone is recognized and thanked.

I can tell you so much more, and I invite you to friend here, Juliana Hickman Guaraldo, on Facebook and in real life.

However, every wonderful thing about her is summed up by knowing that none of us gives up, because she is behind us to make everything we face easier to succeed at.

Julie, I love you so much.

Happy Mothers Day.
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