Not even cancer can stop James Wilson. After beating a rare bone cancer called Ewing sarcoma, the world-class classical pianist’s future sounds better than ever.
The remarkable, determined young man will graduate summa cum laude from Hudson High School this month and go on to attend the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, where he’ll study piano performance and chemistry.
Wilson, who’s been playing piano since the age of 3, has won or placed highly in regional, national and international piano competitions. He was the top American finalist in an international piano competition in France in 2014 and the Netherlands in 2018. He has studied piano in Japan, Utah, Wyoming and Ohio, and is currently studying under the direction of Dr. Alvin Chow, chair of the Piano Department at Oberlin College Conservatory.
“I hope to become a pianist and teach at the post-secondary level,” said Wilson, 18. “I’ve already met the piano teacher at Eastman and am thrilled to be studying under him. It’s a very exciting new phase of my life.”
James, whose father, Matthew Wilson, is the former president of The University of Akron and was just recently named president of Missouri Western State University, is thrilled to move into this next chapter of his life and close the prior one. He feels truly blessed because after battling cancer in his early teens, his future as a pianist was uncertain.
Wilson’s cancer was diagnosed in the summer of 2014, as his family was preparing for a move from Wyoming to Ohio. The family not only transferred all of their belongings to a new home, but also Wilson’s cancer care to Akron Children’s.
Within weeks of undergoing chemotherapy in the Showers Family Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, Wilson began experiencing numbness in his fingertips and weakness in his ankles, a common side effect of chemo. He had trouble feeling the piano keys and pushing the pedal with the vigor to which he was accustomed because he lost most of his muscle mass during treatment.
“That was always the fear that I’d never be able to play again,” said Wilson. “The way my family works, though, is to base everything on hope and faith, so I tried to stay optimistic the whole time through chemo. I always held a glimpse of hope that one day I’d be able to play again.”
Wilson has performed for audiences at Carnegie Hall 4 times, the Kennedy Center once and in Italy, France and the Netherlands. His most challenging venue, though, was at his bedside in the oncology department.
Akron Children’s occupational therapist Giovanna DiFranco worked tirelessly with him to improve his fine motor skills and regain strength and endurance for playing music.
He played through his pain. Music therapist Sarah Gaither always made sure Wilson had a keyboard handy in his room during his chemo. He often practiced with his door open so others on the cancer unit could enjoy the soothing classical music of Mozart and Beethoven. (Watch here.)
“He was experiencing so much pain during that time, but James wouldn’t take pain medicine. He refused it,” said James’ mom, Noriko. “His music helped take his mind off the pain. His music was his medicine.”
Now in remission, getting the sensation back in his fingertips has been music to his ears. Last fall, he competed in the final rounds of an International Piano Competition in the Netherlands and has performed several music festivals since, including those at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and Indiana University. Just last month, he was the featured young artist for the final concert of Music from The Western Reserve’s 36th season.
“I have no trouble with my hands anymore, which is imperative because I practice piano for a minimum of 3 hours daily,” said Wilson, who was a hero patient in the in 2016 Akron Children’s Hospital Akron Marathon Race Series to celebrate his inspiring personality. “I’m looking forward to enjoying my summer and preparing for the next chapter in my life.”
Fighting an illness takes courage, strength and hope. All the things a real-life superhero must possess to end his most difficult journey to date on a high note — and that he certainly has.
Though Wilson doesn’t feel like the superhero, he instead credits those around him who supported him throughout his journey as the real superheroes, he says beating cancer has changed his outlook on life for the better.
Fighting cancer and seeing many other kids much younger than him experiencing his same emotional and physical pain was his greatest lesson in empathy and motivated him to help others.
“I realized we go through life together, and it’s more fulfilling to be a part of other people’s lives and not just your own life,” said Wilson. “Prior to my cancer diagnosis, I was so focused on my goals and fulfilling my dreams. Cancer helped me to step back and realize that I can still fulfill my dreams, but I need to help others do the same to truly achieve success.”