It’s a cold world best believe me
It ain’t easy
but I’m achieving
Been through hell still succeeding
Wounds healed I’m still bleeding
Alll this time changing like seasons
Alll this pain I’m looking for reasons
— from "Told You," by Tymaz
Three battles with leukemia and then Graft Versus Host Disease robbed Tymaz Bagbani of his dream of playing soccer professionally, along with his health. At one point, he was given six months to live. Using a wheelchair, he was told he would never walk again.
But a decade after the first onset of disease, Bagbani is back on his feet and with a new passion: rap. And he’s using his prodigious talent for "bars" and "flows" to tell his story of survival against all odds and of the determination it took to get him there.
"I was always into music, but I just loved soccer, that was the only thing I thought about. I always loved rap music, but I never had the time to (get) into it. My whole life was soccer," said the Richmond Hill native, who has a room full of soccer trophies and medals, and moved to Spain at 15 at the invitation of Malaga FC in the hopes of a professional career.
Hematologist/pathologist Dr. David Barth, medical director of the University Health Network therapeutic apheresis program, said he began treating Bagbani in 2014 when he was "considerably in rough shape" and is very impressed at his ability to prevail against daunting odds.
"From the minute we met him, you could tell that he was driven to get better. Even when it seemed that we wouldn’t be able to help him, he was always in that positive mind frame. It wasn’t like ‘Maybe I’ll get better’; it was ‘When I get better,’" Barth said.
"He has gotten medical care, which has helped him, but he has pushed so hard to … push himself past the pain. The medical system has done a lot for him, but he has pushed it so much further with his positive drive. It’s impressive," Barth added.
So let’s take his battle from the beginning.
At 11, Bagbani was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. After six rounds of chemotherapy, he went into remission. Two and a half years later, at 14, the disease returned. Along with his parents, he launched an international search for a bone marrow donor, finding a compatible one among 60,000. The treatment worked, driving the disease once again into remission.
A year later — one month into his stay in Malaga — bruises and excessive pain and fatigue indicated the disease was back.
"Imagine, I had finally reached my dream that I had worked my whole life for and, one month after, it was taken away," Bagbani said.
Returning to Canada, his prognosis was so grim doctors recommended against further treatment. It was a veritable death sentence.
But his mother Elham’s tireless activism won out and Bagbani had a second transplant, along with more chemo and total body irradiation. And then came Graft Versus Host Disease, an autoimmune disease that ravages the body and causes a host of afflictions, including painful lesions.
"The thing that saved my life took away my dreams, soccer, everything. They told me I would never walk again. Me and my mom refused to accept it," Bagbani recalled.
(His mother has also helped him organize numerous crowdsourcing events with the Iranian-Canadian community and beyond, to pay for medical costs like physiotherapy not covered by OHIP.)
The skin below his chest, particularly on his legs, peeled away, leaving wounds like fourth-degree burns. For two years, his mouth was so inflamed eating solid food was agony. His knees were rigidly affixed in a 90-degree position. But Bagbani didn’t give up. Along with his mother, he scoured the world for treatment options, finally finding a new surgical technique pioneered by a Russian doctor that was performed in Montreal. It involved inserting eight-inch screws into his legs.
Intense pain was his constant companion. He required anesthetic to have his dressings changed. More than five years of convalescence and at-home rehab followed. It took a year — one millimetre at a time — to straighten his legs.
Time spent mostly lying in bed, which is where he found hope in a new dream, watching "battle rap" through King of the Dot Entertainment, a Toronto-based online international league of rappers in head-to-head competition.
"I always knew I had the lyrics, but I was never wanting to be an artist or thinking I would be a rapper. Once I finally actually tried and did it the first time, I was so obsessed with it," Bagbani said.
In a life filled with such adversity, there is also irony. In the midst of the COVID pandemic, Bagbani was finally to leave his wheelchair behind.
"I know it was probably the worst year for some people, but 2020 was the best year for me. That was the year I got my life back. You know what’s crazy? I was in isolation for five years, working on myself, trying to get better so I can get back to life. And as soon as I came out of isolation, the world went into isolation — literally," he said.
"It was summer and it was warm and I could finally start running outside every day," he added.
Fortuitously, Bagbani has long-time friends and had spent many hours hanging out at their music studio while still in a wheelchair. Last fall, he recorded his first song, "Told You," and released it on YouTube.
He’s produced another song, "Full Tilt," as part of an ambitious six-song "concept project" in development called "Chosen."
In January, Brampton-born rapper Tory Lanez reached out to Bagbani via FaceTime, impressed by his talent and his indomitable will.
"Told You" has a special meaning, aimed at those who didn’t believe Bagbani would survive, let alone stand on his own again, he said.
"This song is dedicated to every doctor who said I’d never walk again — told you," he said.
"The way I beat cancer three times is because I loved soccer and I had that dream. And now I have this new dream. I’m blessed to find this new passion and no one on this planet works harder for their dreams than me."