Twenty months ago, former Herndon High foreign language teacher David Segal was completing his 31st and final year of a successful career, dreaming of traveling the world and sitting in the sun. Then one morning in December of 2009, his life would change drastically.
“I discovered a lump in my neck and there was a series of MRIs,” Segal said. “[Doctors] discovered a carcinoma and I was diagnosed with head and neck cancer on January 4th, 2010.”
Shock, fear, anger and confusion riddled his mind. How could he have cancer? He had two teenaged children who depended on him. He was just months away from retirement, had made plans to go to Italy for the 25th time where he one day hoped to live six months out of every year, and had made dear friends. Instead, Segal would spend the next three months undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
“Radiation is where they shoot rays into your body... these beams of light that are destructive that target cancer cells. It’s not selective so it can damage other parts of your body,” Segal said. “So, what happened to me was my salivary glands were zapped and I produce almost no saliva anymore. My vocal chords were pretty severely hurt, but I’m getting better. Six months ago I could barely talk above a whisper.”
Damaged vocal chords would cause concern to anyone but David had found another passion besides teaching. He had begun acting, singing and dancing in both plays and musicals on stage during the mid-90s when a colleague told him about a production she was directing.
“I was always kind of interested in theater, but at Herndon in 1994 Gail Wetzel was doing Kiss Me Kate and looking to cast some staff members,” he said. “She cast me and Tommy Meyer as gangsters. We had this funny song and dance number called, Brush Up Your Shakespeare and it brought the house down and we had a blast.”
Segal enjoyed his newfound talent but had to put it aside for several years to raise his two young children (Gabe and Callie), that he and his wife at the time had adopted from Russia. Because of the damage to his voice, Segal was now concerned he might not be able to perform again. Meanwhile, he had to be hospitalized five to six times for dehydration from the treatments and became extremely sick, losing a total of 50 pounds.
Often a carcinoma or tumor will spread to other parts of the body and shut down an organ’s function. Fortunately for Segal, the doctors diagnosed him at an early stage, localized the cancer and he is now cancer free and back at a healthy weight.
“What I have to do now, since July when I was pronounced in remission, I go back every three or four months for head and neck scans,” he said. “I had one [recently] where he said I was fine. I feel confident, knock on wood, that I’m going to live for a few more years.”
Segal credits his friends and support groups ‘Life with Cancer’ and ‘Caring Bridge’ for providing volunteers to take him to the hospital and grocery store and giving him the gift of new friendships. This past fall, David returned to the stage in a musical and though he said his voice was a bit “gravelly,” he felt fantastic.
He has now performed in more than 25 shows in the Washington, D.C. area and currently starring in Frankenstein The Musical at the Waddell Theatre on NOVA’s Loudoun Campus. (See below for dates and times.) Segal said his favorite things about theater are meeting such a variety of different people and the ability to become someone else in character for those two hours on stage.
“One of my favorites was with the Vienna Theatre Company called ‘Over the River and Through the Woods.' I played a 75-year-old Italian man and the make up was brutal. I used my Italian accent the whole time and it was a lot of fun,” he said. “When I was teaching, I always felt I was kind of acting too because I was creating this Spanish guy to get people into the moment. So, there are some connections with teaching and acting.”
As an actor, Segal can use many authentic accents as he speaks six languages: English, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian and German. He believes he has improved his thespian skills over the years and was even nominated for a WATCH (Washington Area Theater Community Honors) award.
“I got one nomination for ‘Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical,’ in 2005 for playing Cogsworth in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and I was very proud.”
David has recently been looking into his “cultural roots” and got in touch with relatives in the Ukraine, through Facebook and plans on taking a trip to his family’s country in 2012. And the Italian lifestyle is still on his list as well. David believes in taking advantage of his new lease on life and enjoying his retirement to the fullest.
“It’s sounds kind of cliché, but when you kind of see death, and I felt I was not going to be alive, it changes you. Things turn around and you’re suddenly better you really appreciate little things and I feel I have a second chance,” Segal said. “Being retired, not having to work and dealing with those stresses—today this is what’s on my calendar: hanging out and sitting in the sun. I have rehearsals every night this week. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and you can quote me on that.”
Throughout his fight with cancer, divorce, retirement and theater career, Segal has had one constant he says makes him very happy. “I’ve been in Herndon now for 26 years and it’s my home.”
For information on Frankenstein The Musical, visit: http://tftheatre.org/current-season/frankenstein-a-new-musical/