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Healing Harmony

Long before she was a board-certified breast radiologist, Dana Ataya was a toddler banging pots and pans together in her childhood home. “My mom talks about how she would observe me trying to make music out of whatever was around me,” says Ataya, who moved on from kitchenware to piano lessons at age five and vocal opera training in middle school. “Music has always been such a really critical part of my life. It was almost impossible not to have it be part of my practice.”

At Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center, where she’s worked since 2019, Ataya has found the perfect outlet for her talents, rocking out with her co-workers in the atrium after hours as a vocalist for The ReMissions, an employee band.

The musical group is the brainchild of Moffitt President and CEO Patrick Hwu, a tumor immunologist who joined Moffitt in 2020 after serving as the division head of cancer medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. At MD Anderson, Hwu was the keyboardist of The Checkmates, another in-house band. The doctor has been playing in bands — most of them affiliated with places where he’s worked — since the 1980s.

Music, Hwu says, provides a healthy escape from the rigors of medicine. “Academic medicine is a pressure cooker. You have to do so many things. It’s challenging. Doing research is challenging. Most of your experiments don’t actually work. You have to get papers ready. You have to get reviews done. You have to get reviewed. And we just felt like we wanted to have fun and needed an outlet.”

Hwu began mining for internal talent not long after arriving at Moffitt. Calls and e-mails began streaming in. H. Lee Moffitt, the center’s founder and namesake, suggested an evening of Christmas carols in the lobby.

That first unofficial gig is where Hwu met Ataya and Shelley Tworoger, the associate center director of population science, who is also a vocalist for the band. Soon after, they were joined by Tworoger’s husband Mike, manager of research support services, on guitar; Jeff Leighton, a registered nurse, on bass; James Mulé, associate center director of translational science, on guitar; security officer Ron Zalva on drums; and Mark Robertson-Tessi, a researcher of mathematical oncology, on mandolin.

Most Thursdays are practice nights — opportunities for stress relief and right brain exercise after a hard day’s work — but the band has played many shows out and about at building openings and fundraisers. Last October, The ReMissions opened for the band Chicago before a crowd of 9,000 at a cancer benefit in Clearwater.

Every event is an opportunity to elevate the message of cancer screening. “By tying what we do particularly to fundraising, it's a really important opportunity to advance the mission of the cancer center … our mission to contribute to the prevention and cure of cancer,” says Shelley Tworoger.

Before the Chicago gig, Ataya brought some of her original songs to the band and they voted on two singles she wrote — Home and Hands — to include in their setlist.

Reflecting back on her life journey, the radiologist says she’s always had a fusion of interests. “It's really interesting, because I see that finally, now, at this point in my life, almost coming back to that fusion of music, science, and then there's another component, which is advocacy. What makes being part of The ReMissions such an absolute privilege and a pleasure is what we're doing is really sitting at that intersection of mission, passion, vocation and profession,” Ataya says.

Striking a Chord

When Vincent DiMartino was diagnosed in 2021 with Merkel cell carcinoma — the same rare skin cancer that killed Jimmy Buffett — the news he received from his local hospital in Kentucky was not encouraging. A search for better treatment options led him to Moffitt, where doctors are conducting clinical trials using immunotherapy drugs and radiation to tackle the disease. While being treated in Tampa, DiMartino — an acclaimed trumpet player who’s played lead and solo trumpet for Lionel Hampton and Chuck Mangione — discovered he was in good company among fellow musicians, and soon they were making music together.

The musical world, it seems, is a small one. DiMartino had previously crossed paths with the band’s mandolin player, Mark Robertson-Tessi, years before when Robertson-Tessi was a recording engineer with Telarc Records in Ohio.

Now they share a stage whenever DiMartino is available to join the group for performances. As for his health, DiMartino gets checkups every three months since completing his cancer treatment. “They never say you’re cured,” he says, “But you know, the reality is that you have to be ready for whatever comes, and at 75, I’m lucky to be here anyway.”