“ I truly believe that while chemotherapy did kill my tumor, it was creativity that saved my life.
Jesse Hershkowitz is another mAss Kicker from New York! We met Jesse in person at a conference in Las Vegas years ago. At the time he was performing the Stupid Cancer Anthem. We reconnected with Jesse at a survivor event at the Gliderport in San Diego. Jesse goes by the stage name, “Urbalist”, but he is a man of many hats. He is currently the founder/creative director of Hope Hop Workshop, Head Recording Engineer/Producer/Recording Artist “Risk it All Records”, and Shop Manager/Sound Engineer/System Installer at Audio Incorporated. Jesse is currently in the process of establishing Hope Hop Workshop to combine his passion for music with cancer advocacy. We reconnected with him recently to ask him a few questions.
mK: Thanks for doing this Jesse! How did you find out about your diagnosis? What was your official diagnosis?
JH: I was living in Atlanta at the time and pursuing a recording contract and career as a recording artist. I went to sleep one evening feeling fine but at about 6am I woke up suddenly with the most intense pain I’ve ever felt in my life located in right arm. It was radiating all the way down to my finger tips and up my shoulder and neck and throbbing. I went to the emergency room and they didn’t even x-ray me. I was mis diagnosed as having either bursitis or a torn rotator cuff, even though I hadn’t experienced any physical trauma at all. I was given a cortisone shot and a prescription for some pain killers and sent on my way. I had tickets to go see Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers along with The Allman Brothers Band the following day in Philly so, in extreme pain, I boarded my flight and attended the concert with my brother. In retrospect the three hours that I spent at the show were the only three hours during which I felt no pain. The day after the show my brother and I hit the road to drive up to Boston for my Grandmothers 85th birthday. We only made it as far as New Jersey because the pain had intensified to such an extent that I could no longer exist without audibly screaming constantly. I went back to the ER in NJ where I was finally x-rayed and that’s when I first heard the term “pathological fracture”. It turns out that a tumor had been growing inside the bone of my right arm near the shoulder and had gotten large enough to break the bone from the inside out. A week later I found myself sitting in Sloan Kettering scheduling a biopsy and picking out which kind of mediport would be inserted into my chest. Then followed 8 long and brutal months of chemotherapy. My official diagnosis was Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma of Bone.
mK: That is a very rare form of lymphoma! That is crazy how your symptoms weren’t as strong at the concert! Music is a very powerful modality/form of therapy because it heals the soul. What were your symptoms?
JH: Only the extreme pain of experiencing my arm being broken from the inside out. I had no weight loss, fatigue, night sweats or anything else usually associated with a malignant tumor.
mK: How did you get into hip hop?
JH: When I was in high school I was about 4’6” until the end of senior year. I guess you could say I was a late bloomer. However my Napolean Complex was about 8 feet tall. So naturally, I started to lyrically battle other kids in the lunch room. When I kept winning I realized that I had the potential to be a good lyricist. That’s when I bought a composition book and started writing songs. When I went off to college I was randomly assigned a roommate in the dorms who was also an aspiring emcee. That year we formed a rap group called Hybrid H. The rest, as they say is history.
mK: What other organizations are you involved with?
JH: I have done a lot of work with many organizations including Stupid Cancer, S.O.M.B.F.A.B.(Some Of My Best Friends Are Bald), Flash of Hope and First Descents just to name a few. I am currently building and launching my own organization called The Hope Hop Workshop. I travel the country visiting hospitals, support groups and foundations with a portable recording studio teaching kids, teens and young adults how to write and record original music and poetry which represents exactly what they are going through as cancer patients, survivors and caregivers. For each workshop conducted an “Anthem Song” is created in collaboration with the participants which identifies the core values of their organization. I am very excited about the next workshop to be conducted at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on Monday, December 7, 2015 because that is where I was treated 9 years ago. So it is all coming full circle.
mK: What motivates you?
JH: Providing people going through the same battle I did with a sense of hope through music and creativity. There is no better feeling that hearing somebody say that listening to my music makes them want to fight even harder.
mK: Who is your personal hero or are your heroes?
JH: Musically I have always been inspired by Big Punisher, Guru of Gangstarr, Eminem and Method Man. In my dealings with cancer related organizations I have crossed paths with many people who fit the bill as heros. Matthew Zachary, Jonny Immerman and Ethan Zohn are a few. My personal hero at the moment though is Nurse Amy Schneider. What she has done over the last 25 years as founder and director of S.O.M.B.F.A.B. based out of Rady Children’s Hospital is awe inspiring and I can only hope to achieve a fraction of what she has for others affected by cancer.
mK: Let’s get to know you better… What makes you laugh, cry, angry?
JH:. What makes me laugh is a thoroughly sarcastic sense of humor in others. What makes me cry is reminiscing on all those thrivers who have grasped on to my music for survival yet unfortunately did not make it. What makes me angry currently is the fact that my day job commands so much of my time and energy that I am unable to put my all into The Hope Hop Workshop. I sincerely hope that moving forward I can one day dedicate myself full time to this unique creative music therapy program.
mK: What would you say is the most interesting thing you’ve ever done?
JH: I once had the opportunity to perform 7 individual shows for the kids in the inpatient wing of Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. A lot of these kids were in isolation, unable to ever leave their rooms due to severely compromised immune systems. I went from room to room with a small PA system and performed a few songs from my album “Cancerous Flow : Lyrical Journal” in each. In all of the rooms it was for an intimate audience of less than 3 people. The kid going through treatment and maybe a brother or sister or their parents. We made a lot of difference that day and brought those people a lot of hope.
mK: Very cool! What do you think is the toughest challenge a survivor faces?
JH: I think its different for everyone. For me it was the two year period after treatment ended. I didn’t allow myself to feel emotions like fear and uncertainty while enduring the 8 months of chemo. I had to rely upon strength and determination to get through it, but as soon as it was over all of those feelings I had locked away came rushing back. I had a serious case of PTSD and an incredibly difficult time re-acclimating myself to normal life and routines. For the first year after I survived I was literally afraid to get up off of my parents couch.
mK: What is your guilty pleasure?
JH: Watching Ancient Aliens on the History Channel
mK: Here are some hypothetical questions for you… Who would win a fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris? Kevin Arnold from the Wonder Years vs Cory Matthews from Boy Meets World? Goofy vs Porky Pig? Orko from He-man vs Snarf from the ThunderCats?
JH: Bruce Lee all day, Kevin Arnold (I’m old school), Goofy (but most likely due to a clumsy, accidental, and lucky hit), and Orko (I never watched Thunder Cats and I don’t know who Snarf is…)
mK:HAHAHA! We’ll have to disagree with you on the last point. Snarf is a bearded-reptile-cat-alien. Snarf’s beard alone would strike fear and rattle the clumsy Orko, preventing him from casting spells. Snarf’s animal instincts would take over and he would devour that weird magician. Anyways, what are is next on your agenda?
JH: As I said earlier I’ll be conducting a Hope Hop Workshop at MSKCC in early December and I am very excited about it. Also I am in the process of booking a few more workshops for a program called Camp Adventure in January. Outside of that I’d really like to get into public speaking with a Hope Hop twist at various cancer related conferences across the country.
mK: Any advice for people or loved ones that get daunting diagnoses?
JH: Don’t let it overwhelm you. It can seem difficult to do but trust me when I say that this too shall pass. I remember going through chemo feeling like every minute felt like an hour, but nine years later I look back on it now as a small blip of time in the grand scheme of things. Also it is very important to find something creative to channel all of the negative emotions into. Doesn’t matter if its painting, drawing, writing, playing music or anything else. I spent the eight months I of chemo treatment writing and recording a hip hop album called “Cancerous Flow”. I wrote all the lyrics and produced all the music from my hospital bed and recorded and mixed it on a small home studio in between treatments. I truly believe that while chemotherapy did kill my tumor, it was creativity that saved my life.
mK: Tell us something about yourself that people probably didn’t know… anything.
JH: One of my biggest influences as a lyricist and song writer is not a rapper. It is Billy Joel.
mK: Any parting words for all the mAss Kickers?
JH: Keep kicking mass and taking names!
Jesse Hershkowitz: Billy Joel fan boy, “hypothetical fight” odds-maker, Ancient Aliens guru, resilient artist, musician, non-hodgkin’s lymphoma of bone thriver, and cool guy! Thanks again for answering our questions Jesse! We look forward to seeing the progress of The Hope Hop Workshop! Check out The Hope Hop Workshop website when you get the chance…