Stories of Hope

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DJ Spreads Hope through Relay for Life

Article date: August 3, 2005

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"This is therapy, for the head really, and for the heart, and for the spirit. And that's what this event is."


At the age of 13, Jose Vallenilla, better known as "Funky Joe," started his career in radio, becoming the youngest disc jockey in Puerto Rico. He recalls the thrill he'd get every time his schoolmates told him they'd heard his show on the radio. That excitement grew into the passion he now feels for his job. 

Joe currently works alongside his old friend Antonio Sanchez (a.k.a. Tony "the Gangster") hosting "El Bayu," Puerto Rico's No. 1 morning radio show. The two men met some 20 years ago at a local radio station in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and have remained close friends since then. That friendship proved invaluable when Joe faced a cancer diagnosis in 1999 that threatened not only his health, but his livelihood, too.

"I think I was one of the first people that he called to say he had cancer," Tony says now. "I began to cry, because he's a very special person."

An Ironic Diagnosis

Being the big radio personality that he is, Joe recalls how ironic the news seemed when he was diagnosed with cancer in October of 1999.

"My cancer was in my tongue, of all places," he explains. "My tongue is my life."

At first, though, he wasn't terribly worried. The doctor had only spoken of a tumor on his tongue that was probably benign. It wasn't until the doctor suggested Joe get treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York that he became truly concerned.

"That same day I got on a plane and I left the island and I went to New York," he remembers.

A biopsy at the cancer center confirmed Joe's fears: The tumor was, indeed, cancer. But there was a silver lining. The doctors told him it was one of the most treatable types of tongue cancer. Within 3 days of beginning treatment, his tumor had completely disappeared, and he was finished with his chemotherapy a few months later.

He seemed to be in good health, exercising and eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Then about a month after his last treatment, he suddenly felt a pain in his left leg which caused him to lose movement in his foot. He returned to New York, and by the time he got to the hospital he could hardly walk.

"When I got into the emergency room, they immediately scrambled," Joe says.

The cancer had spread to his brain, and he had to be treated with more chemotherapy through tubes in his head and chest.

But that wasn't his only health problem. No sooner had he been released from the hospital after that treatment than he had to be readmitted for treatment of viral meningitis. His situation began to seem absurd and he decided to face it with a positive attitude.

"You know, I just started laughing, because I said how can this be that so many things can happen to me? And I said, 'all right, all right, I can take this, c'mon, just throw it at me!' "

A Little Help From Friends

Despite his upbeat outlook, Joe still had a long way to go in his recovery. He needed a bone marrow transplant, which was going to cost about $200,000. But with his savings already spent, Joe couldn't afford the procedure. He turned to his old friend Tony for advice.

Tony suggested asking their show's fans for help raising the money. Joe resisted; he didn't want his listeners involved in such a personal matter. Tony convinced him it was the best alternative they had.

Joe says Tony's participation in the fund drive was crucial.

"I am sure that because they heard the hurt that was inside him, the feeling that was inside him, that that transmitted to the rest of the island and everybody just rallied support around me," he explains.

The fund drive raised over $300,000 -- more than needed for Joe's transplant. As soon as Joe got back to work, he repaid the money into the fund so it could be used to help others in need.

"The money from the people got extended to help a lot of other people," Joe says.

Relay for Life -- Puerto Rico

Funky Joe's cancer experience didn't end with his treatment. For the past 5 years, he has served as honorary chairman of the Puerto Rico Relay for Life. This 24-hour walk-a-thon is a celebration of cancer survivors, and a commemoration of people who have lost their lives to the disease. Held every year in communities throughout the US and the world, it is also the American Cancer Society's signature fundraising event.

But for Joe, the event is about much more than money. Being surrounded by so many people whose lives have been touched by cancer is "an incredible, incredible feeling," he says. He finds hearing about other people's experiences with the disease humbling and inspiring.

"This is therapy, for the head really, and for the heart, and for the spirit. And that's what this event is," he says. "I know money is important but people talk about many other things. They talk about how tough it was, or how difficult it was remembering this person that is not with us anymore, and it all just mixes together into one word that I think is 'hope.' Hope is the word that everybody wants to come out of this event with in their hearts."

Now cancer-free and feeling "like a 15-year-old," Joe says the experience has left him a better, happier person. Having to take time out for his treatment gave him time to think about what was really important in his life. And that realization left him with a firm determination to beat the disease.

"I will not die of cancer," he says with confidence. "I might die of anything else -- I might trip and break my head or something -- but I will not, I refuse to die of cancer."