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Modulation: One year in the cancer journey of a symphony family
Ralph Jones, double-bass player with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and his wife Gloria tell the story of his battle with cancer. Jones was treated at the Winship Cancer Institute, Emory University. His cancer is currently in remission.

Halloween has always been big at the Joneses. They drape cobwebs on their porch, strategically place a mat that plays scary music when visitors come to the front door, and litter their lawn with creepy tombstones.

The parents, Ralph and Gloria Jones, even don costumes every year when they perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for the annual Halloween concert.

This year their decorations include a life-size mask that eerily resembles Ralph’s face and neck. That’s because the 3-D mask was created for Jones at Emory to help radiologists mark the exact location of an aggressive, stage IV cancer that had taken hold at the base of the tongue.

Jones received his cancer diagnosis on May 7, 2010, a day that he and his family will never forget and which they say has changed their lives forever. He had had few warning signs—a little blood in his saliva, a small lump that suddenly appeared on his neck, and in hindsight, a persistent cough. Since that time, the Atlanta Symphony’s principal bassist has undergone surgery, chemotherapy, and two rounds of radiation at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute.

Under the care of a team of specialists that rivals the number of players in the symphony’s bass section, Jones has had to relearn how to swallow. For a while, he lost the characteristic beard for which his bass students had dubbed him “Sir Ralph.” His voice has even changed in timber and pitch. But he can still make music that moans, weeps, skips, and soars.

After many months of treatment, Jones returned to the orchestra part-time for rehearsals, and Gloria Jones recorded events in a journal that she has kept from the beginning of their cancer journey. “Today he made it through the entire rehearsal time of the Dvorak 7th Symphony,” she wrote in March. “This piece is tiring for a healthy person, much less a compromised one, so I am also bursting with pride for him.”

Emory radiation oncologist Jonathan Beitler had seen Ralph Jones once a week or more during 35 rounds of radiation treatment. He now got to see his patient in another setting—Atlanta’s Symphony Hall, complete with a backstage tour to meet the musicians. (Beitler has since become a season symphony subscriber.)

Too soon, however, neither Beitler nor the Joneses would have any reason to celebrate. Despite victory in the tongue and neck, a small blueberry-sized spot had turned up on Ralph’s sternum, and it was malignant.

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