Turning Thirty…Turned Forty+

Like many of us or those we know, Tom Willner's life has been changed by cancer. Right after turning 30, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Tom and his wife Allyson had been struggling with the decision to start a family when suddenly the debate took on a new urgency. Aggressively trying to beat the disease, they also struggled to bring a new life into the world. During that difficult time, Tom wrote seventeen songs about the experience and turned it into a musical, Turning Thirty. "I've always been a musician. One of the ways that I dealt with the whole ordeal was to write it to music," said Willner, whose day job coincidentally was the director of web development for the American Cancer Society. Over the past five years, Turning Thirty, The Musical has played in various venues at various times for various charitable causes around town.

Tom, Allyson Klara, Elliot and MilesWillner tells his story "When my wife and I realized something was wrong and that I needed a urologist, we immediately called Emory Urology. It was there that I first met Dr. Issa, who not only diagnosed my testicular cancer and performed several operations, but also helped me navigate all of my cancer treatment through Emory. My experience with Emory Urology literally saved my life. I truly appreciated the kind, knowledgeable staff and the quality of care I received." Now at 44 and cancer-free, Willner remains a close friend of Emory Urology where he also received counseling and treatment to help him start a family. Tom and Allyson were subsequently blessed with three beautiful and healthy biological children, Klara (12), Elliot (10) and Miles (4). 

Dr. Issa and AllysonSeveral years after his treatment, Tom handed a CD of his musical Turning Thirty to his surgeon. "Curious about this, I decided to listen to it in the car on my way home… soon I was a mess… a 6ft­‐4 man, teary like a baby… I just could not stop," said Issa, whose character is Dr. Saxon. "The Wizard in Turning Thirty did not look anything like a Wizard in traffic that day!" Turning Thirty, The Musical is a journey of courage, love, hope, and family. With styles of music including rock, gospel, country, jazz, and swing, the musical takes you on an incredible ride that captures the couple's devotion in "I’m Here for You" as well as the surrealism of navigating cancer treatment in "The Battle" between his surgeon and cancer personified.

"People say, 'You’re singing about cancer, it will be a downer,'" said Willner. "And the whole time I’m thinking, it's testicular cancer. C'mon, folks, the jokes write themselves!"

Willner describes it as dramedy–part drama, part comedy: "The type of cancer I had—testicular—does lend itself to jokes. Humor played a big part for me dealing with cancer." Indeed, one particularly rollicking early ditty is the not so slyly named "Have a Ball." Willner starts and ends his musical with the same title songs: "Life is Good." The difference is: the first emphasizes "Good" and the last emphasizes "Life."

Tom performing"My favorites are 'How Could This Be' and of course the one about a specific fertility treatment option that involves a cup (very funny)," Issa said. Seeing things differently is the guiding principle behind Turning Thirty, which attempts to do for cancer what the Tony Award-winning musicals Next to Normal and Rent did for bipolar disorder and people living with HIV, respectively. When asked about aspiration for his musical, Tom replied: "To be totally honest, I would like to be working on my Tony acceptance speech. Or attending the musical debut on Broadway or in London. I realize that there is a long path and a lot of hard work ahead."