Windsor Symphony Orchestra conductor battling most cancers

Robert Franz, 54, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October 2021.

Yet, the music director has carried on conducting the Windsor Symphony Orchestra (WSO).

“I knew that I had to keep making music,” says Franz. “Making music is part of who I am.”

Franz tells CTV News he first noticed a “tingling” in his left hand last summer, but he chalked it up to getting back into the swing of conducting, as pandemic restrictions started to ease.

Over time, Franz says the pain spread down his left arm. He says he tried therapeutic massage and chiropractic treatments, even nerve blockers.

“Nothing was helping,” says Franz. “The pain had just gotten out of control in my left arm. I mean, I was still conducting but I was using Icy Hot [pain reliever] and it was awful. I was doing everything I could just to get through a concert.”

By the time he went to see a doctor, Franz says the pain had traveled to his right leg.

“I thought I had arthritis because I was having a hard time walking in my right leg. It turns out that my right leg was riddled with this cancer,” says Franz.

Doctors diagnosed him with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I had a 10 centimeter tumor in my left shoulder.”

“The day that they said, ‘Robert, we think you have cancer,’ everything goes quiet, right?” says Franz. “They kept talking but I have no idea what they said after that.”

“And in my mind, I’m thinking ‘Okay, so is this the end? What do I do? Do I do planning?’” Franz says.

Franz turned to his first true love — music.

“I knew that I had to keep making music. Making music is part of who I am,” says Franz. “There were many days where what kept me going was that I had scores upstairs to learn. That I had music that I wanted to know. That I was making music. That I was listening to concerts.”

Incredibly, Franz continued to work throughout during his six weeks of chemotherapy treatment.

“The conducting I did was all in between [chemo treatments]. So it was when my blood cells and my blood count was back up to a level that was doable,” says Franz.

All he gave up were his out-of-town conducting gigs with other orchestras, because his immune system “was shot” and he was under constant and close monitoring by the medical team at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre.

Franz says halfway through his treatment the pain went away, “once the tumor released itself from the nerve bundle.”

He admits the side effects of the drugs were challenging. One of the strangest beings the hiccups he had from one particular medication.

“Like you think ‘Okay, yeah, hiccups big deal’. [But] when you have hiccups for seven days straight and the last three days are 24 hours [a day] solid? What happens is you get acid reflux, you get pains in your chest, [and] you lose your voice. It’s bad,” says Franz.

With the help of a supportive family, his music and the staff at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre, Franz says he’s doing “great”.

“I finished my six rounds of chemo and my CAT scan at the end of the six rounds came back clean which is really phenomenal,” he says.

All that’s left is one last scan to determine if the cancer is gone and Franz hopes to be in remission.

Franz admits there were times in the last six months when he was overcome by emotion while on stage conducting the orchestra, saying, “Luckily I had a mask on because I would just be crying and like whimpering underneath.”

But he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“It was my time to not be a cancer patient and to be a musician again — and that was vital,” says Franz.

There are just two weekends left in the WSO’s season. Franz seems excited not only to finish this season out but he’s also looking forward to what they have planned for next season.

“I didn’t feel like ‘Oh, I should just sit home and wait for this to go away.’ I was like, ‘How do I get out and live in the world again?’ Franz says.

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