Comedian John Ziegler and musician Richie Cannata, both cancer survivors, shared their stories before an audience of about 1,200 fellow survivors at Northwell Health's annual Don Monti Cancer Survivors Day celebration at the R.J. Zuckerberg Cancer Center in Lake Success on Saturday. NewsdayTV's Drew Scott reports. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

On a notepad next to his hospital bed, John Ziegler jotted down jokes as he underwent treatment for pancreatic cancer.

In one month, the comedian transformed the grim experience into a half-hour comedy routine titled: “Getting My Affairs in Order.”

“It’s the easiest I’ve ever written that volume of material,” he said.

Before an audience of about 1,200 cancer survivors Saturday, Ziegler, 55, shared his story through a unique comedic twist as keynote speaker for Northwell Health’s annual Don Monti Cancer Survivors Day celebration. The Lindenhurst resident was joined by musician Richie Cannata of Glen Cove, the original saxophone player for Billy Joel, who spoke about his journey surviving Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Famed saxophone player and cancer survivor Richie Cannata of Glen Cove performs...

Famed saxophone player and cancer survivor Richie Cannata of Glen Cove performs at Don Monti Cancer Survivors Day celebration at the R.J. Zuckerberg Cancer Center in Lake Success on Saturday. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

During a heartfelt and hilarious 19-minute speech under a massive tent at the R.J. Zuckerberg Cancer Center in Lake Success, Ziegler thanked all the health care professionals who saved his life and the family members and neighbors who supported him since his diagnosis in April 2021.

“Getting cancer is the worst thing that’s ever happened in my life,” he said. “In the same breath, it’s the best thing that ever happened in my life.”

He recalled a consultation with his surgeon, Dr. Matthew Weiss, who asked him if he was confident.

“I said, look Doc, this is what Steve Jobs died of — that guy’s got billions of dollars. I have EmblemHealth.”

As the crowd erupted into laughter, he added to the punchline: “The bronze plan!”

The Don Monti Memorial Research Foundation sponsors the event as a way to bring together survivors and to highlight the hope that exists for cancer patients.

Caroline Monti Saladino said her parents started the foundation in memory of her brother, who died five decades earlier at the age of 15 from acute myeloid leukemia. Saladino, 77, serves as president of the foundation.

“The message today is that you’re here and this is like a reunion,” she said. “It’s a victory reunion. It’s hopeful and it’s a party.”

Joan Sweeney, 66, of Bethpage was among the attendees. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

"These little get-togethers are really heartwarming and remind you of what you've been through," she said. "You pray for everybody else that's going through it right now."

Dr. Richard Barakat, the physician-in-chief for Northwell Health Cancer Institute, said the event is meant to celebrate the survivors and give hope to cancer patients.

“That’s why you celebrate survivors," he said. "Especially for newly diagnosed patients to see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Cannata’s cancer journey began in 2015. He never publicly shared the details until speaking at Saturday’s event.

“I felt it’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the caretakers, it’s about the doctors, the nurses, it’s about my wife, my sister-in-law, it’s about my family. It’s about the people that got me through my aggressive Stage 4 cancer.”

Cannata, who tours with The Lords of 52nd Street band, spent six months at North Shore University Hospital receiving continuous chemotherapy. The treatment crippled him.

He couldn’t even snap his fingers.

He had to relearn how to write his name; how to play the saxophone.

The first time he returned to a stage at a gig on Long Island was “pretty emotional,” he recalled.

“It was crazy because I wasn’t strong enough to be there,” he said. “I picked up my horn, it was so heavy. But it was so good to play.”

Cannata was joined on stage Saturday by singer-songwriter Dan Orlando. Together, they performed Billy Joel’s classic, “New York State of Mind.”

As Orlando sang the final verse — I’m in a New York… — Cannata ripped into a one-minute solo drawing a huge ovation from the audience.

As the song concluded, Cannata saluted the crowd, one survivor to another.

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