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Herbie Mann - Jazz Flutist and Prostate Cancer Survivor

by Julie McKenna

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, November/December 2001.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

As one of the most influential jazz flutists of our time, Herbie Mann has always been breaking new ground with his music. Originally a saxophonist, Mann began looking for a place to make his mark in New York but realized that the area was saturated with saxophonists, and he needed to take a new direction. When there was no jazz tradition for a flutist, he went ahead and did it anyway, creating a new kind of jazz. Using the harmonies of many regions, including Brazil, Africa, India and Cuba, Mann continually experiments with new sounds. His music recently took a new direction, inspired this time by becoming a survivor of inoperable prostate cancer.

In 1997, after having been treated for impotence with testosterone, Mann took a PSA test, which he and his wife, Janeal Arison, had not previously known about. His PSA was 15, prompting his doctor to do an immediate biopsy. In November of that year Mann was diagnosed with prostate cancer that had spread beyond the prostate gland, rendering his cancer inoperable. While Mann and Arison were immediately devastated by the news, they quickly took on an optimistic position. In our interview, Mann explains his proactive outlook on his cancer saying, "Obviously it would have been better if it had stayed within the capsule, but what could I do? That was what was dealt to me. I just went ahead and started getting any information I could and seeing what I could do about it."

Realizing the importance of the PSA test, Mann and Arison decided to inform as many people as they could about it by forming the Herbie Mann Prostate Cancer Awareness Music Foundation (HMPCAMF), Arison says, "It's really a way of healing ourselves because if we had the information that we're now trying to provide others, we would not have had to go through what we went through. That's what our mission is. It's empowering and it makes us feel that a tragedy has turned into something hopefully fruitful and helpful to others."

"When you have cancer, you stop worrying about sales and start only concerning yourself with the value and strength of the music."

Three months of radiation kept Mann's cancer at bay until November 1999 when it metastasized to his bones, and Mann had to follow-up with four months of chemotherapy. He is now in remission, which is maintained with the help of testosterone-inhibiting drugs. Treatment is ongoing for Mann and Arison, testing their endurance. Arison points out that cancer can also test the strength of a couple's relationship. She begins each presentation for HMPCAMF by stating, "My name is Janeal Arison and I'm here because I'm a prostate cancer survivor." In our interview, Arison explains, "That's a showstopper! I believe that anyone who loves someone who is successfully treated for any kind of cancer becomes a survivor of that cancer as well. It's not just about the person with cancer. It's about the person he loves and that's why it's his responsibility to go and take care of it."

Arison goes further in saying that prostate cancer is a couple's disease and there are many issues to contend with. "One of the things that is especially difficult in coping with prostate cancer for couples is the sexual issue. It is absolutely the most challenging and remains to be because Herbie has to continue this course of testosterone inhibitors that eliminates his libido," Arison says. "We haven't overcome that. We still need to work on it. That's one area that I would like to see more information generated and shared because I think it is difficult for people to talk about."

While treatment has been difficult for Mann and Arison as a couple, it fortunately did not significantly affect Mann's onstage performance. "What cancer does is it eliminates any kind of insecurity or fear that you have," Mann explains. "You don't care what anybody thinks, now that you have cancer. You push the envelope even more."

When I ask Mann if his experience with cancer changed his music, he replies without hesitation, "Yes, it has. I had been writing music all my life that reflected my Eastern European roots, but I always put it away because I didn't think it had a place in my music. During your career you're always concerned about sales. When you have cancer, you stop worrying about sales and start only concerning yourself with the value and strength of the music. So I changed the band and I spent time working on this music and recorded a new album and it's all Eastern European music."

Mann and Arison continue to be busy with the new album and HMPCAMF, but still make time for what Mann calls his most important lesson from cancer: "When you have cancer you realize how important family is, how important your friends are, and how important pleasure is. Don't waste any time. Every second of your life is very important."

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This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2001.