Angel Reynoso's 30th birthday had a lot of what you'd expect: family singing, cake cutting, and phones recording. What made this birthday so different was where it took place -- he was in a hospital room. The day before, he'd had a seizure, was rushed to intensive care and had emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.
"It kind of was slowly told to me by the nurse that, you know, you almost didn't make it," says Reynoso. "It was my birthday and the first thing I did was sing happy birthday to myself, just as a way to stay empowered in that moment."
Growing up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, music had always been an important part of his life. His father listened to classical and Latin music, his mother loved merengue, and later his cousins introduced him to hip hop and R&B. "I would always just kind of come up with my own melodies and think of my own little shows and I was always creating," he says.
That creative spirit stayed with him as he studied music in college. He was a company manager at a performing arts center in Queens, New York, and interned doing press and media relations. And he would eventually make a living as a wedding singer while working on his own music career.
In the spring of 2013, he began getting frequent headaches, describing them as "a pain that I've never felt before." He saw several doctors -- they all told him it was migraines and suggested pain medication to manage it. Usually energetic and the life of the party at his wedding gigs, he had to begin taking breaks during performances and started canceling events. Eventually, a family friend's doctor suggested he get a CT scan.
"So we're coming home from doing the CT scan and I get a call and it's the physician telling me I must go to the ER immediately," Reynoso says. "Like clockwork, I started having a seizure."
After being rushed to the ICU, Reynoso was given an ventriculoperitoneal shunt (or VP shunt) -- a device that relieves pressure on the brain caused by a buildup of fluid, as a result of a condition called hydrocephalus. Though he doesn't remember much after the seizure, Reynoso matter-of-factly describes what happened that day: "They basically drilled a hole in my head."
Though initial tests were inconclusive, Reynoso eventually found out the hydrocephalus was caused by a germinoma brain cell tumor.
When he woke the day after surgery -- his 30th birthday -- Reynoso was surrounded by friends and family. They sang. He cut the cake. His family recorded him on cellphone video. Understandably in shock, he recalls a small detail from that moment. "For me to look at that video now, if you notice I don't look at the phone because I was like, 'This is a little bit overwhelming.'" He goes on: "I just felt really good that I was there with the people I love, so I saw how blessed I was and the kind of support I have."
Reynoso is left with permanent reminders from that experience. "There's a tube that runs around my ear and down my chest so the excess liquid [from around my brain] goes into my abdomen," he explains. "It's there for life. I tell people I'm like a super X-man now."
He would also go on to have 25 rounds of radiation therapy over five weeks.
Almost three years later, Reynoso is in remission. His cancer has given him new perspective. "I would always say things like, 'I'm a lover, not a fighter,'" he says. "But now I'm a lover and a fighter ... you just have to fight for your own life."
He has found the fight to be difficult at times, both physically and emotionally. He says his career and personal relationships have suffered in part due to his diagnosis. And he has recently begun therapy, something he once viewed as too stigmatized in his family and community. "I've accepted that I went through a hardship and it brought a lot of emotional feelings from my past that I never really dealt with," Reynoso says. "It was something that was really positive and very powerful for me."
But he adds, "music is my main form of therapy."
Along with some members of the group Decadia, Reynoso sings in a tribute band for Selena -- the celebrated "Queen of Tejano" music, who was killed in 1995. He also finished his own album, fulfilling a lifelong goal, and is studying marketing to help him decide the right time to release it. Separate from the album, he wrote the song "Stepping Forward" to raise money for the nonprofit organization Stupid Cancer -- an advocacy group for young adults with cancer. He wrote the lyrics on his first day home after surgery: Stepping forward into the unknown, don't know what's waiting on the other side.
"A lot of people ask what did cancer take away from you," Reynoso says. "I never thought of it in that way because I never let it take anything away from me. Nothing, anything, anybody can take away the gifts that I have, the talents that I have. My singing and how I choose to express myself through music -- no one can take that away from me."