Atlanta man turns battle with cancer into musical

- One Midtown Atlanta man knows first-hand how painful it is to be diagnosed with cancer.

So Tom Willner began to write his feelings in a journal to help him cope. Little did he know, what he scribbled in that notebook would become a powerful tool to help healthcare workers provide better care for their patients.

It all started the moment Tom’s doctor told him he had testicular cancer.  Everything around him became a blur.  He could no longer concentrate on the important information he was getting.

“Once it hits you that you are dealing with your own mortality, everything sort of fades out and I was just focused on that. I didn't know what I was going to do," said Willner.

“I thought writing in my journal might be a way for me to deal with what you can imagine is some pretty heavy stuff,” he said.

Before Tom even realized what was happening, the musical “Turning Thirty” was born.     

“I opened my journal and I wrote the name of the play, and I wrote the names of characters and the songs. And it just started to flow out from there.”

Anne McSweeney runs a company called CEU Concepts and heard about Tom’s play. She recruited him to perform at her medical conferences, where doctors, nurses and social workers earn credits to maintain their professional licenses.     

“Tom’s play is a great tool for learning because it's from the patient's perspective.  He shows you the ups, the downs, the good, the bad and just the raw truth of the whole cancer experience," said McSweeney. "It’s powerful.”    

Tom’s musical generates discussion, making the conferences more engaging then the ones McSweeney remembers attending as a young social worker.     

"As you can imagine, I would be going to some of these 6 or 7 hour seminars that were long and boring.  A presenter would talk at you for the entire time and you are not really taking as much away as you potentially could," she said.

Tom hopes his musical inspires workers to make small adjustments to their daily routines, like realizing that any information given to patients in the devastating moments after a cancer diagnosis will likely need to be repeated.

“Anything a doctor or nurse could do to help patients know the right questions to ask, and then answer those, would be beneficial," said Willner.     

Tom also would like to help make cancer treatment more streamlined.    

“Every little step of the process involved making a new appointment, going to some other specialist, going to another location, take a test over here, wait another week before you get to your doctor again," he said. "I kind of feel like there were very few people who knew the big picture."

"Ultimately I would love it if after seeing this show, and talking about it, they would be able to really improve outcomes for people," he added.

Just last week, the play had its national debut.  

Tom and Anne were chosen to present at a prestigious medical conference in San Diego, The World Congress of Continuing Professional Development.

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