Mark Telesca story - June 29 issue of Florida Weekly
If playing the blues means authentically channeling one's trials and tribulations through music, then the next CD by Brooklyn-born, Boynton Beach-based singer, bassist and guitarist Mark Telesca (www.marktelesca.com) should be a masterpiece.
"I'm going to call it [i]New Life[i]," he says. "And I'm currently in the process of writing it."
The 56-year-old Mr. Telesca's new life essentially started in early 2016, following on the heels of the release of his critically-acclaimed 2015 album [i]Heavy Breathing[i], more than 18 months of hosting the popular Monday "Biscuit Jam" at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton, and advancing to the semifinals as a solo singer/guitarist at the annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn. in January of last year.
"It all started with me seeing the doctor because I was burping incessantly," he says. "They drew blood, and found out my white count was high. Further tests proved that it was high because my body was fighting an infection, and after another scan, they called me the next morning to tell me to get in there to see the doctor right away. And he told me that my colon was near a collapse, and to get to the emergency room immediately because they would need to operate by the following morning. Because not to do so meant risking sepsis, which meant you're done. So they removed six inches from both my large and small intestines, did a colon reconstruction, and completed the surgery successfully."
Yet the surgical team also realized that something had caused the symptoms to arise in the first place.
"Their first suspicion was a polyp that had enlarged," says Mr. Telesca, "but my latest colonoscopy had come back clean. Colon cancer was a logical worry, but that usually takes close to 10 years to develop. So when they did the colon restructure, they found a tumor in my lymphatic system. It had attached itself to soft tissue and caused my colon to collapse, and I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. I had only one tumor that had stayed localized below the diaphragm, So I was told that the surgery had eliminated the immediate threat, but that I needed to undergo chemotherapy to wash out any other prospective cancer cells from my body."
If that had been the extent of Mr. Telesca's ordeal, he would've already scaled a medical mountain. Recovery from the surgeries proved painful, and as anyone who's endured chemotherapy infusions knows, poisoning a body to counteract the poison that already exists in it is a torturous process. Those infusions started in April of this year, and as of May, Mr. Telesca felt good enough despite the chemo side effects to return to work as a full-time musician before another setback.
"I thought I'd come down with the flu," he says. "But my blood count had dropped super low because I'd gotten another infection in my colon. I ended up in quarantine for four days at Bethesda Hospital, and was advised to reduce my stress and stop putting myself at risk. I'd gone back to the Funky Biscuit and had all kinds of people hugging me and shaking my hands while asking how I was doing, which was very nice, but I was inviting infection that way. So I had to make the call to just stop working, and stay home, to avoid that. I want to come back strong this time."
Anyone who believes in the "what doesn't kill you" theory will surmise that Mr. Telesca will come back stronger. Only two weeks before his initial diagnosis, he'd sold his previous house and moved into a new one with his wife Karene, an accomplished visual artist. Twenty-three-year-old daughter Mariah had also recently been forced to break the lease on her apartment and move, and then was involved in a serious auto crash.
"I hadn't even had time to unpack before all this started," he says. "The sale of the old house and moving into the new one was stressful, then my daughter had her situation and the accident. I think it was all too much at once, and teamed up to kick the initial infection into overdrive."
Mr. Telesca will continue to receive chemotherapy until August. He hopes to be back onstage as host at the Funky Biscuit, and for gigs both solo and with his self-titled trio, by September.
"I go for treatments every 21 days; always on a Wednesday," he said in early June, "and those days through the following Saturdays are pretty challenging after the nine bags of different medicines they infuse me with. Plenty of liquids I have to drink, steroids and other medications, and feelings to negotiate. I didn't even know there was a National Cancer Survivors Day [the first Sunday of June annually] until people started tagging me with it on Facebook and offering good wishes. There are a lot of us out there, and I'll be paying attention to that day from here on. We all have a common goal of getting better, and I'm one of the lucky ones. I expect to make a full recovery."
He is not alone in his optimism.
"Mark is going to come out the other end of this great, I just know it," says Karene. "I'm working four days a week now, and always make sure that my day off falls on a chemo day so I can take him to his appointments."
Essentially quarantined at home, Mr. Telesca limits the number of guests he receives at a time, has cleaned up his diet, and even changed his look by necessity.
"I shaved my head because my hair was dying and falling out," he says. "Even my beard was falling out, so I took the razor one day and put it out of its misery as well. We try not to have more than a few people visit at a time, and I take precautions like not doing as much hugging and kissing, and using paper towels instead of a communal cloth towel. I've cut out all sugar, carbonation and other artificial aspects of my diet. And all processed meats, which, for an Italian guy, has been a transition. But I haven't lost too much weight. I'm not gaunt."
An extended support team includes frequent visitor Mariah; in-laws and friends, and beyond. During Mr. Telesca's current hiatus as host of the "Biscuit Jam," the role has primarily been filled by keyboardist and Funky Biscuit owner Al Poliak. The club also set up a YouCaring donation site for Mr. Telesca to raise funds for his medical and living expenses while he's sidelined and can't work.
"That's a beautiful thing that they've done for me," says Mr. Telesca. "It's helping us deal with the financial stress of medical bills on top of regular bills, and the outpouring of love has been unbelievable. It's overwhelming. People say they want to have a benefit for me, but I want to throw a benefit for everyone in the community for being so supportive. I don't know how I can ever repay them."
A full recovery will suffice. When Mr. Telesca first hosted a "Biscuit Jam" in 2014, it was as a substitute for the talented singer and guitarist David Shelley, of the band Bluestone, Mr. Shelley, who'd toured with Cher and himself been signed by major recording labels, was dealing with his own cancer diagnosis, and succumbed to the disease in August of 2015 at age 57. Mr. Poliak eventually hired Mr. Telesca as his full-time replacement because he saw within him similar traits -- which have served him well through his health crisis as well as in music.
"Mark is personable, respectful, and enthusiastic," Mr. Poliak says. "I tend to stress having the 'want to' factor in order to succeed, because if you don't have that, it always involves heavy lifting. Mark has that 'want to' quality. That's inspiring."
Beyond his physical changes, Mr. Telesca is also undergoing the mental catharsis shared by many trauma survivors, who often see a light through the darkness of such ordeals. And as a former employee and proprietor of multiple funeral homes for nearly 30 years, Mr. Telesca had plenty of previous experience on the dark side.
"All the little things in life that matter still matter," he says. "But something like this makes the non-tangible elements take priority over things like the almighty dollar and material possessions. It's family, friends and music that have guided me. Karene has been so strong through all this; everyone has been so helpful and supportive, and even music feels different to me now. When I go to chemo and look at some of the other people there, I don't know where they find the strength. I'm sitting next to a woman who might weigh 90 pounds at my last appointment. She's put on her wig and lipstick; is chatting with the nurses, and looks like she's been doing this for years and is burnt to a crisp because of it. But it's obvious that she's not going to let it beat her, and it's all I can do not to break down and cry. I realize that even though it's likely that I came within a few days of dying twice this year, for someone with cancer, I have it good. So it's all taken on a new meaning. And a better meaning."
To donate to Mr. Telesca's YouCaring fund, visit www.youcaring.com/marktelesca-833753.