Inside a Brooklyn apartment, the a cappella singing group Blackout gathers for rehearsal. They exchange hugs, watch their latest video on YouTube and snack on fresh fruit and hummus. As they warm up -- nodding in sync, voices in harmony -- one member reflects on a time he couldn't sing at all. "When I got sick I just didn't have the energy for it, so I stopped," Jake Prigoff explains.
Music has always been a big part of Prigoff's life. His family used to sit in the living room, singing The Beatles and the Eagles while his father played guitar. "Ever since I was really, really little I was always a singer," he says. "A whistler, a hummer, anything that involved music was something that I loved."
He also loved sports, playing in various leagues around his hometown of Roslyn, New York. But when he was around 14 years old his voice began to weaken and his stamina fell. A significant cough and high fever sent him to the family doctor, who thought he might have pneumonia. The subsequent chest X-ray and CAT scan showed he had stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma. When Prigoff's mother told him, he fell to the floor and cried. "It's almost like a lightening bolt strikes you because your body just goes numb," he says.
Treatment began that night, just two weeks before his 15th birthday. He would undergo six 21-day cycles of chemotherapy. He has stark memories from the chemo's harsh physical effects. "The first day I woke up with hair covering my pillow, I said to myself, 'This isn't some awful nightmare that you will wake up from,'" Prigoff recalls.
Following chemotherapy, he had 60 days of radiation therapy. That experience left him with permanent reminders: nine small tattoos marking precise spots all over his body. Doctors used them to align him with machines every time he went in for radiation. "They would put me on this table and load up this loud and scary machine," says Prigoff. "I knew it was saving my life but as a 15-year-old I just wanted to go home."
Prigoff tried to find small triumphs and reasons to smile during his treatment. He asked his best friend to give him a mohawk before his hair fell out, and once dressed up as Mr. Clean when he was completely bald. His family, friends and doctors were ever-present, but like many others faced with a life-threatening diagnosis, at times he felt isolated. "Imagine being the puffy-cheeked bald kid, walking around knowing that everybody is looking at you because you have cancer," he says. "It's really lonely."
After months of intense treatment, Prigoff's cancer became undetectable. He had CAT scans every few months for five years. And while he knows there's always a chance it can return, he smiles as he says, "I am ten years cancer free. It's exciting."
Eventually his voice would come back full force, and he began singing in the shower again, both annoying and delighting his sister. As he began thinking about a life and career beyond cancer, a moment during his treatment always came to mind -- when his oncologist said he liked treating Hodgkin's lymphoma patients. "He said, 'We can fix you!'" Prigoff recalls. "Those are the words you want to hear and my oncologist gave them to me -- and so from day one I was confident that I would be OK."
Now 25 years old, Prigoff is a fourth-year medical student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, studying to become a surgical oncologist. He'd originally planned on going into business, encouraged by his parents and his own interest. He studied economics The University of Michigan. But being a cancer survivor at such a young age had defined a large piece of him. "I recognized that for the rest of my life I'm going to forever be passionate about fighting cancer," he explains. "So if I can do that for a living then every single day I go into work I'm going to be excited."
During his time in Michigan, he began to further pursue another passion: singing. He joined an a cappella group there, and after returning to New York, he was recruited to join Blackout. They've performed at small venues, parties and even the Super Bowl.
When singing in front of other survivors, Prigoff feels like he's giving back. "Every now and then it brings me back, he says. "Whether it's that I catch a glimpse from somebody else in my group or there are some words that might trigger something in my mind, I think back to when I couldn't sing and it makes performing and singing for people that much better."
Prigoff also does volunteer work with Cycle for Survival, part of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, to raise funds and awareness to beat rare cancers. Last year he was a motivational speaker at their annual Times Square Takeover. "It's hard to beat having a great time with your best friends cycling for a cause that's near and dear to your heart," he says.
At the rehearsal in Brooklyn, Prigoff and friends sang pitch-perfect covers of Beyonce's "If I Were A Boy" and Bruno Mars' "The Other Side." He looks calm and relaxed, just as he does demonstrating surgery techniques in scrubs.
"I do think things happen for a reason," he says. "Cancer has gotten me where I am today, and it's going to get me where I go in the future."