They were about to have the meeting of a lifetime, writing a song with hitmaker Jeff Franzel, when they received what they thought was an ordinary call from their mom, Fran, wishing them luck. It turned into a call letting them know she had just been diagnosed with stage II breast cancer.
Singers and songwriters Will and Anthony Nunziata walked into the meeting with this news weighing heavy on their hearts and minds; but the heaviness gave way to the title, the melody, and the words of an ode to their mother, “The Gift Is You.”
Several months later, the song debuted at Carnegie Hall in New York City with the New York Pops Orchestra. Just over two years later, the song has become a staple at Will and Anthony’s concerts worldwide and has been an inspiration to others who are battling breast cancer.
“There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t get a message from someone who is touched by this song,” Anthony said. “I get messages saying, ‘I’m on my way to my chemo treatment and listening to your song’ or at concerts, women will tell me their stories of survival or that they’ve been reminded to get their check-ups.”
Anthony said the song has served as a way for he and Will to express what it feels like for a family to go through breast cancer – from diagnoses to treatment, to thankfully, hearing the words, “cancer free.” The song portrays a strong relationship between Anthony, Will and their mother, but Anthony said the emotional impact of Fran’s breast cancer was something very new for him to process.
“I had feelings I wanted to work out and I usually went to my mom for that kind of help. I could have gone to my mom for advice on how to deal with this life issue, but I had to make the choice to find help through my therapist so that I could really be there for my mom,” Anthony recalled. “Our instincts are to just do what we think is right for the person, but this really required me to ask my mom, ‘What do you need,’ ‘What are you feeling.’”
Fran said her family was very close even before her cancer diagnosis. Her three children, Anthony, 35, Will, 35, and Annie, 30, usually call two-to-three times a day for what she describes as ‘mom needs.’ But the diagnosis, she said, brought everyone even closer together. “The kids would come home all the time and go with me to appointments and check-ups and make sure we had dinner and give my husband a break, take him to ball games.”
Fran discovered the lump in her left breast in April 2016, about eight or nine months after her last mammogram. When it was still there two weeks later, she immediately called the doctor and scheduled a mammogram. “I knew something was wrong. I’m not an alarmist, but I just knew that something was wrong with me,” Fran said.
The scan confirmed a lump in her left breast, which was biopsied a few days later. Shortly thereafter, Fran remembers receiving a call while she was at work, informing her she had Stage 2 breast cancer. Her first round of treatment included a lumpectomy, but, unfortunately, Fran’s margins still contained traces of cancer, requiring another lumpectomy. The second lumpectomy still didn’t result in clear margins, so she had to undergo a mastectomy. All three procedures happened over the course of nine weeks, she said, while she was also trying to plan Annie’s wedding and put together floral arrangements.
Through everything, though, I’ve learned that I have to be my own advocate, Fran said. “My battle cry has been that if you feel something, do something about it. I don’t care if you just walked out of your mammogram. I know so many women who have felt something one, two, four months out from their most recent scan.”
And even though there were some dark times for everyone, Anthony and Fran consider themselves fortunate. “I’m very blessed to have my family. When the news hit about my mom, it was ‘all hands on deck,’” Anthony said. Added Fran, “I’ll never forget when I was going to one of my appointments and everything was good. I was getting out of my car and saw a massive clump of long hair in the parking lot. Every time I think about that poor woman who walked away from her treatments and lost her hair in the parking lot, it devastates me. I didn’t have to have radiation and chemo. I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Despite Fran’s clean bill of health, Anthony says he still thinks about his mom’s cancer. He says emotions are always heightened around Fran’s check-ups, and on days when Fran isn’t sounding like herself or feeling well, he worries if maybe the cancer has come back. “There’s always that lingering possibility of something else going on,” he says.
Fran, too, says she’s suspicious. “I have a clean bill of health, but I don’t always believe it. I don’t always believe the bloodwork or the scans. I’ve been in dark corners.” But she reminds herself and her children that her time hasn’t yet come for her to pass on. “Don’t clean out the china closet yet, and don’t you put sticky notes with your initials on anything you want,” she says.
For now, Fran says everything seems to feel just right. “My husband, Joe, and I are hosting Mother’s Day this year; the kids are in charge of the barbecue. And I’m so grateful my sons continue to use their music to do good in the world.”