Waging the Cancer War, Surrounded by Signs of Life

Waging the Cancer War, Surrounded by Signs of Life


Nice but noisy

We’re on Worth Street in TriBeCa, near where a giant crane collapsed two years ago. It’s a great area, but it seems like construction is never-ending. There’s a constant bombardment of jackhammers and dump trucks. There’s no window in my office, so if I want to see the activity, I have to go to the center room where our employees are.

Mr. Zachary’s office.CreditCole Wilson for The New York Times

From illness to advocacy

When I was a senior in college, I learned I had brain cancer and was given less than six months to live. In 2007 I started a nonprofit to advocate for young adult cancer patients that eventually morphed into Stupid Cancer.

A Realtor for this building allowed me to use unrentable space pro bono for a few years, including an elevator shaft that had been paved over and a closet. We finally leased this space in 2010. My office, which I think of as feng shui hyperstimulation, is cavelike.

“The piano is in my DNA, I can’t live without it,” Mr. Zachary said.CreditCole Wilson for The New York Times
Taking a break at the keys.CreditCole Wilson for The New York Times

Constant companion

The piano is in my DNA, I can’t live without it. I was all set to go to grad school at the University of Southern California to study music composition for film, but the tumor and the effects from surgery destroyed my ability to play. I turned down chemo because it would have meant I could never play again. Since then I retaught myself piano and recorded and released a couple of albums — solo piano, like George Winston and Yanni.

Favorite artist

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to Mondrian’s Cubist works. They satisfy my inner-O.C.D. artistic needs for geometry, simplicity and angularity.

A row of vintage Apple computers atop Mr. Zachary’s bookshelf.CreditCole Wilson for The New York Times

A bushel of Apples

I have Apple computers starting from the 1980s that I just can’t throw out. They’re industrial-design genius inventions. Apple gave the New York City schools tons of computers back then. My dad was a New York City teacher, and when one broke he took it home and fixed it, or I did. Apple didn’t want them back. I used Macs in high school and college. One may be worth a couple thousand, but I’d never sell it.

Two monikers

Last year we rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. I use Matthew Zachary as my business name, but for security reasons, I had to use my legal surname, Greenzweig, to get into the building, which is why it appears on the engraved collectible they gave me. I noticed the Stock Exchange staff had Greenzweig for the chyron that appears on the TV screen, so I had to catch them beforehand and have them change it to Zachary.

Our public relations team gave me the beer can, which is from an English brewery with the same name as our yearly gala. We named our annual fund-raiser Toast to salute our community and our impact.

The external monitor on Mr. Zachary’s desk. He has been a coder since childhood.CreditCole Wilson for The New York Times

Tech savvy

I have an external monitor that mirrors my laptop screen, and I use an old Galaxy tablet for the time and the weather. You could say I’m the IT director here. I’ve been coding since I was a kid. I minored in computer science and was an Apple-certified engineer in college.

Creature of habit

I drink only water, Starbucks coffee, and when I’m sick, mint tea. For lunch, I either walk to Starbucks or the deli downstairs to get something and eat at my desk.

Mini medical professional

In the early 2000s, Genentech invited me to attend a hematology conference and play the grand piano at their trade booth. I performed for attendees on the trade show floor.

The company also gave out copies of my CD and squishy doctor toys. Mine is next to a couple of models of the brain. After my experience with cancer, every time I see a model of a brain, I buy it. When I was sick, my mother’s friend gave me a yardstick that’s inscribed, “Yard by yard, life is hard, inch by inch it’s a cinch.” It was apropos at the time.

Alerting fans

The fliers atop the piano, which I designed myself, are from four cabaret shows, or concerts, I gave after college. The concerts were my way of rehabilitating myself and getting back into what I was passionate about. I emailed them to a bunch of people and they also served as signage and programs at the events. I stopped playing in 2002 because I was so busy.

Clockwise from top left, Mr. Zachary’s daily coffee; Mr. Zachary’s New York Stock Exchange badge featuring his legal name; the mini medical professional he received at a Genentech conference; Mr. Zachary on the cover of Newsweek; Mr. Zachary’s vintage transformer toy; a photo of Mr. Zachary with his friend Adam Price.CreditCole Wilson for The New York Times

Oldie but goody

As a consummate 1980s kid, I still think the Transformers are the coolest thing in the universe. When my 7-year-old son was 2, I tried to introduce him to a Playskool Mr. Potato Head takeoff of the Optimus Prime Transformer, but it didn’t work. He tried to eat it. I bought a replacement but decided to keep it myself.

Never enough

I have four or five Transformers in the office. I never had a man cave at home, so this place is perfect for displaying all the things my wife has asked me to get rid of.

In the limelight

Newsweek contacted me early in 2017 and said they were doing a special issue on disruption in health care and wanted to include me. I thought it would be an inside article, I didn’t realize I’d be on the cover as an angry rebel. I’m a cover model.

Friends forever

The photo of my friend Adam Price and me on a mountain peak is the most important from my cancer experience. He was the person who held my head over the toilet bowl when I was sick. I had finished radiation and was told that without chemo, I was risking my odds of survival. While all my friends were leaving for grad school, he and I flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and drove around the Southwest before there was a GPS or Google Maps. We ended up in the Grand Canyon and had someone take our picture on a crazy precipice. We had to jump through space to get to it. It was a bucket list item before there were bucket lists.



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