Cancer Can’t Stop This Violin

By: Cosi Belloso

This blog aims to educate each week, but sometimes there needs to be first-hand accounts of overcoming odds to remind readers to believe in themselves.  Similarly, Episode 174 of “Now Hear This Entertainment” featured an inspirational story of hope for the downtrodden from bass player Marc Ensign.  This week’s guest blog offers a similar story of perseverance, albeit in the form of courage and overcoming a far different type of hurdle.  Violinist Cosi Belloso shares the story of her comeback from cancer to play another note, another song, another day.

Cosi BellosoI am standing in perfect stillness. My bow is poised directly above the strings of my violin like a precision weapon waiting to strike at its target. I take a slow deep breath in and close my eyes. The scent of violin polish and my favorite perfume intermingle and the combination brings back beautiful memories of playing in numerous orchestras, weddings, funerals, plays, musicals....as I let out my breath, lower the bow, and let years of practice take control. The hymn is "Be Not Afraid" and it is one that I have played more times than I can count at Sunday Mass. I smile as my dear friend Colleen uses her viola to harmonize with my notes and Maryanne's nimble fingers run up and down the piano creating a beautiful feast of sound reverberating through the sanctuary.

It was only one short year ago that this scene would have seemed impossible to me. One year ago I was in the fight of my life.

On December 3, 2015 I received the news that would turn my world upside down. I had invasive ductal carcinoma--a type of breast cancer. I would spend the next year undergoing three surgeries and twelve brutal weeks of chemotherapy with numerous procedures in between and many weeks of anxiously waiting for test results.

At the time of my diagnosis, I was only in my mid-thirties. I had been married for ten sweet years to the love of my life, and I had four beautiful (and very young) children. This was not good timing. (Let's be real, is it ever?)

I'm actually not a musician by trade. My classical training began at the ripe "old" age of 11 years when I started violin in the public school classroom. My parents sacrificed over the years to pay for private piano and violin lessons after being encouraged to do so from my teachers. I participated in all the usual high school music activities – school and county orchestras, Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra – and was proud to be a part of a quartet with my childhood buddies Kurtis, Colleen, and Kyle.

When I went to college to study physical therapy, I had received a small scholarship to continue with the orchestra at Florida International University, but the demands of my PT program didn't allow for anything extra and my beautiful 1888 violin collected a thick layer of dust.

Fast forward ten years and four kids later and I found myself playing regularly again at Sunday Mass at Nativity Catholic Church. I was playing with top notch musicians and it felt good, really good. It was my weekly therapy away from my diaper changing duties as a mother and a direct spiritual connection to my faith.

When I received the news of my cancer, I was in the middle of a play at a local community theatre. I had been cast as Irene Adler, the love interest and intellectual rival to the famous Sherlock Holmes. Along with my role as the femme fatale, I was playing violin backstage as Holmes mimicked onstage. Three weeks before opening night, I had extensive surgery to remove the breast cancer. While I was able to perform my role as Irene Adler (by the skin of my teeth--can you say tight Victorian costume?!), I was unable to play the violin. As a physical therapist I knew my body was still healing from the mutilating surgery I had just been through. As a musician, it was one more thing that cancer had taken away from me.

The weeks passed and I slowly regained range of motion and strength in my arms. The weekly procedures to prepare me for the second surgery would set me back and I would have to fight to each time to maintain my progress. But I had an end goal in sight – to play again. And then came the chemo.

Have you ever seen the “Rocky” movies? You know the drill – dude gets hit over and over and over. As a viewer, you just want to tell the poor fool to just stay down and not get smashed again. But he keeps getting up. That's chemo. I would have an infusion every three weeks. Within 24 hours I would be flat on my couch and unable to even sit up for more than five minutes at a time. This would last at least ten full, long days and then on day 11 I would start the slow uphill climb to being able to sit up, then walk around my home, then walk to the car, and eventually even make it to running two miles before the next treatment would come along (ten days later) and smash me back down again.

In between each treatment there would be at least one Sunday I could make it to church. That was my biggest goal during those cycles. If I could only get enough strength to be able to sit up for one hour, I could sit through Mass. My ever supportive husband would take charge of the kids (no small feat!) while Colleen would set up the music for us. Miguel (our very talented vocalist) would bring me a chair so I wouldn't have to lift a finger (no pun intended). Maryanne, our pianist, was always there to greet me with a smile and I could see she was happy to see me.

And I played. It was playing like I had never played before. Technically, I needed a lot of work. The surgery had changed some of my body mechanics and my bow arm felt stiff and there was residual pain, but I played my heart out. It was my prayer of thanksgiving for making it through another week of cancer hell and being strong enough to stand on two feet and make it through one hour. I knew people were staring. You don't get in front of a congregation of 500 people with a bald head without getting a few looks. But I didn't care. I wanted them to see that I wasn't going to let fear or physical weakness stop me. A few parishioners would later come up to me and tell me that they themselves were cancer survivors and were proud to see me up there. This made my heart smile and gave me that extra push.

It's funny, all my life I had experienced awful butterflies before playing in front of any size audience, even familiar venues and family. After standing up in front of so many people who witnessed my most vulnerable moments, that all went away. My playing didn't magically improve. Let's face it, when I have a piece in Db major, I whimper. Something inside me was so happy to be able to play again that it squashed all those butterflies and nerves. It became just me and my violin. And my violin was just happy that I was back.

Find Cosi via her Facebook page and talk about this blog (with her) in our Facebook group.