Published March 02, 2011
In May, Byron Janis received a Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City – a fitting tribute to the famous virtuoso, who has suffered from psoriatic arthritis throughout his legendary career.
At 4 years old, most children worry about learning the alphabet and numbers – but not Byron Janis.
The former child prodigy was already learning the sharps and flats of a piano. After starting on the xylophone, Janis’ teachers knew he had a talent that was rare — and he began developing his skills, becoming a highly recognized musician throughout the world.
In 1973, at the age of 45, while in London working on recordings, Janis noticed a patch on his finger.
“It was red. It wasn't too big, but it was terribly painful,” Janis told FoxNews.com. “I thought, ‘this should go away,’ but it didn't go away.”
After his doctor diagnosed him with arthritis, Janis, who is now 83, began acupuncture and taking medication, but he kept his medical condition a secret from the public.
“I sort of said, ‘I don't have it.’ I knew if I spoke about it, they would start looking for problems,” said Janis, who kept his arthritis hidden for 12 years.
While arthritis is a difficult condition for anyone to cope with, it is especially difficult for Janis since he uses his fingers as part of his livelihood.
When Janis, who studied under the great Vladimir Horowitz, learned he would face life without full use of his hands, he was devastated. He had already been making music with a numb pinky finger since the age of 11, the result of sticking his hand through a glass door during a childhood chase with his sister. Now he would have to face even more stress to the invaluable fingers that made him a virtuoso.
Over the following years since his diagnosis, Janis underwent five surgeries to help alleviate his condition.
“The first one was horrendous because it shortened my thumb — it has no extension,” Janis said. “I thought, ‘that's it.’ I can never overcome that. I was in a chronic depression. I thought well, music was my life. I thought my life was over.”
Janis’ wife, Maria Cooper Janis, was a strong support system for him through such a trying time – she witnessed the physical pain and psychological stress her husband had to endure.
“When you love someone, you say OK, it’s all the way,” said Cooper-Janis, who is the daughter of acclaimed actor Gary Cooper.
Cooper Janis said she saw no space for complaining about what might have been bothering her, and she asked her husband to compose a song for a documentary she was creating for her father, which he did.
“[It was] one of the things that got me out of the depression that I went through after the thumb,” Janis said.
In 1985, Janis decided to let the world know what he had been struggling with for more than a decade. During a concert at the White House, Nancy Reagan announced the news on behalf of the Arthritis Foundation.
During his speech, Janis noted, “I have arthritis, but it doesn't have me.”
Since then, he has been a national ambassador for the Arthritis Foundation – which is something he did to inspire others.
“If I can do it, you can do it,” Janis said. “I fought it with my mind. I've always said you gotta have a lot of passion for what you want to do. And you have to have perseverance.”
As part of his commitment to the Arthritis Foundation, Janis is donating 25 percent of the proceeds from the sale of his DVD documentary, “The Byron Janis Story,” his newly published book, “Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal,” and his soon to be released CD, “Byron Janis Live From Leningrad.”