Danny Reynoso’s fight to win
Punk rock, tattoos and brain tumors: it’s the local musician’s battle of a lifetime
Danny Reynoso cringes as tattoo artist Jesse Mitchell slowly carves a large image of a bright, glowing brain in the musician’s upper left arm. Mitchell’s been at it for an hour now, and the needle jabbing at Reynoso’s skin hurts something bad.
Reynoso, 48, seems to manage the pain easily, though: cracking jokes about the unrelenting agony and making small talk about one of his favorite bands, the Ramones.
Over the course of several hours, the tattoo continues to take form. Within its outline, a small heart sits in the center, and squiggly sun rays surround the whole thing.
When Mitchell eventually finishes, the heart will be solid red and the rays, a rainbow assortment of green, yellow, red and orange.
In the meantime, though, it’s a quiet, low-key Tuesday afternoon at Royal Peacock Tattoo, located in Midtown. Mitchell continues to work slowly, focused, barely speaking above a mumble.
This isn’t his first tattoo, but the ritual never gets easier, nor less painful.
So far, Reynoso—a longtime musician, wrestler, school teacher and TV host—has picked his most significant life moments to commemorate with body ink.
The first—“Reynoso” sprawled across his back in old English lettering with the bold red, white, and green Mexican flag colors—symbolizes coming to terms with his parents’ health and mortality. In 2002, his mom was dealing with health issues that perplexed doctors. It scared everyone in the family.
The second represents a happier time: Reynoso’s 2010 engagement to his wife Erin Reynoso. It’s a wedding crest depicting a red bicycle rolling down the road, dragging aluminum cans behind it, a symbol to remember how he and Erin used to ride bikes all over Midtown when they first started dating.
The third tattoo, this latest, feels different than the rest. This one represents Reynoso’s fight for his life. In early 2017, doctors diagnosed Reynoso with acoustic neuroma, a benign brain tumor. “Benign” means non-cancerous, but that hardly promises an easy road to recovery.
A year and a half later, in fact, Reynoso still suffers from hearing loss, daily headaches and dizziness. He’s undergone radiation treatment but it’s unclear if it’ll stick. The symptoms could worsen. The tumor could, eventually, be fatal.
Reynoso’s facing the uncertainty with a fighting spirit. In the last year he’s raised money for tumor research—something he’s done for cancer research for years, actually—and this October 13 he’ll take part in the National Brain Tumor Society’s second annual Brain Freeze benefit, an event for which teams jump into Lake Natoma on a chilly Saturday morning.
On the surface, Reynoso may appear composed—fearless even—but if he’s being honest, he’s terrified of this tumor inside his head. Still, the fear kicks him into overdrive and makes him want to fight back. Hence the big, bold words surrounding the tattoo-brain: Brain Tumor Fighter.
“It makes me feel better to be a fighter and not a victim,” Reynoso says.
“I was destined to have this”
In 2016, life was good. Reynoso kept busy with the abundance of activities that made up his life. He taught elementary school kids—each day showing up in a bowtie and suspenders. His nights and weekends were filled with frequent gigs at various Sacramento dive bars, gigging with his handful of high-energy sweaty punk bands, the Moans, the Knockoffs and Captain 9’s & the Knickerbocker Trio.
He also hosted the science and nerd culture-themed PBS show Beyond Geek, and spent time with Erin and friends in their Hollywood Park home. He devoted a lot of time taking care of his cat and many adopted dogs.
Around that time, though, Reynoso noticed he’d lost some hearing in his right ear. Mostly, he shrugged it off. All those nights in dingy bars, blasting punk—well, it just seemed like the price of admission to his rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
Then, it got worse. Increasingly, Reynoso caught himself pretending to hear what friends were saying, nodding along as if he heard everything. When he and Erin went out to dinner with friends, they’d strategically choose a spot at the table where he could best hear the conversation.
It started to drive Erin crazy. Finally, in early 2017, she insisted he see a doctor. Reynoso wasn’t thrilled with her mandate, but assumed that the doctor would tell him he had a damaged eardrum, or that it was time to start wearing a hearing aid.
Instead, his tests revealed no significant difference between the two ears. The doctor suggested he get an MRI. The procedure finally revealed the real culprit.
The brain tumor diagnosis took Reynoso by surprise. As he drove home, he felt a huge weight pressing against his chest. He wouldn’t be dealing with this alone—Erin would have to go through it, too.
“I felt guilty that I did this to her,” Reynoso says. “That was a really hard feeling, to tell my wife that this is what you have to deal with now for the rest of our lives.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Erin was more concerned with his health and recovery—eager to support him in every way.
“I think one of the first things I told him is that he is OK. And that everything will be OK,” Erin says. “Relationships are full of ups and downs, good and bad. And chances are we will have other, potentially more difficult, things we will have to go through together. I see it as part of my role in this relationship to be there for him.”
In the days and weeks that followed, Reynoso experienced a whirlwind of emotions. He found himself looking toward the future. If he was going to survive then he needed to be proactive about his health. He had to face it head on.
“It’s really easy to sit at home and go, ’Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?’” Reynoso says. “[Or] you can try to appreciate all the things like the fact that you have scientists who are constantly trying to develop better ways to take care of stuff like this. I got to appreciate that. Otherwise, I’ll get depressed and drink whiskey all day. I’d rather drink whiskey to celebrate.”
So, instead of feeling guilty, Reynoso set about educating himself on acoustic neuroma.
Like most people, Reynoso didn’t know much about it before his diagnosis. His father died in 2006 from a cancerous brain tumor. He knew it wasn’t that. So, then what was it exactly?
According to the National Brain Tumor Society, an estimated 700,000 people in the U.S currently live with a brain tumor. Eighty percent of brain tumors are non-cancerous, and how they impact a person depends on the speed of growth and location.
Benign brain tumors also have a large genetic component.
“I was destined to have this,” Reynoso says.
Whatever the cause, he must now deal with the effects.
It’s Reynoso’s hearing that’s taken the biggest hit, primarily in his right ear. And the more the tumor grows, the bigger chance there is it will impact other functions of his brain.
The thought scares him, but he knew he wasn’t going it alone; along with his family and friends, the local music scene mainstay has many supportive friends. One, in particular, fought her own battle. His friend Liz Salmi, who’d played in the local punk band Luckie Strike in the ’90s and early 2000s. In 2008, doctors diagnosed her with a malignant brain tumor. After surgery and chemotherapy, her symptoms eventually stabilized. Now, she gets monthly scans and lives with the knowledge that it could worsen or turn fatal.
Salmi was eager to help Reynoso. After all, he’d thrown a benefit show to help her pay medical costs way back when. It was time to pay him back. And, so, it was Salmi who helped Reynoso with some of his overwhelming feelings. She shared her experiences and brought him to brain tumor support groups.
At one support group, Reynoso realized he was the only one there with a non-cancerous tumor. This experience brought on many conflicted feelings. He was terrified for his life, but also guilty that others had it worse than him. Salmi and the others assured him that he too deserved support.
“There’s no such thing as a good brain tumor, at all. Whatever fear, anxiety, suffering, pain, the side effects, it’s a shared experience, whether it’s malignant or not,” Salmi says. “I needed to make it clear to him as someone who’s been through it that he might be feeling that way, and I want him to know that it’s OK to feel like this is fucked up, but not compare himself to others.”
Plan of attack
Reynoso underwent his first MRI in early 2017, and then another six months later. Based off these tests, the doctors determined the tumor was growing and he should take action.
Surgery is the go-to treatment for most brain tumors. Problem is, most tumors lodge deeply in the brain—surgery meant he’d likely have part of his brain also removed as part of the procedure. His hearing in his right ear would also likely get worse, and he could potentially lose function on the right side of his face. With therapy, he might remedy that—but nothing was guaranteed.
Another option was a form of radiation known as Gamma Knife. With this treatment, rather than remove the tumor, doctors would attempt to starve it of blood flow and prevent it from growing any further. Best case scenario, he’d live with the hearing loss, headaches and dizziness he currently manages, but it wouldn’t get worse. The procedure itself is also scary. Patients wear a mask around the head that’s held in place by way of drills in the skull before doctors administer radiation for an hour.
Reynoso wasn’t thrilled with the idea.
Then, after his second MRI, his radiation oncologist suggested Cyberknife, a new non-invasive, cutting-edge radiation treatment pioneered by a doctor at Stanford. During this treatment, patients wear a special mask made specifically from a mold of their face. The patient lays face down while wearing it. No bolts enter the skull.
“It’s similar to a hockey mask,” Reynoso says of this less creepy mask. On a more serious note, he says he’s grateful for recent medical advancements.
“I’m throwing my life into science,” he says. “Thankfully there’s some scientists at Stanford who came up with this method to help people with my condition in the least invasive way. I wondered if I was going to feel a burn or sting. It didn’t feel like that at all.”
Treatment started in May: Five 15-minute sessions over consecutive days. In November, he’ll see if it worked—if the radiation halted the tumor’s growth. Until then it’s a long wait. This time, though, the wait may be more bearable. Before he started treatment, Reynoso mostly dealt with his diagnosis privately, telling only close friends and family. Finally, in November, he came out publicly, with a blog post detailing his journey. In it, he talked about his fears, discussed his treatment options and invited others to ask him questions. In his first video blog post, he appears depressed, holding back tears.
“I was numb when I heard the news,” he says in that video. “I didn’t know how to react. It’s kind of a tough time for me right now because when you’re going online and you’re reading about these sorts of things, you hear the worst possible scenarios.”
The musician now says he’s glad he channeled his energy into this blog, even documenting some of his darker moments.
“I’m going to turn it into a positive. I hope to help out or even educate somebody to say, ’OK, well I’ll go check,’” he says. “It’s helping me deal with it. In the long run, if it helps someone else, even better. I’m essentially doing all this to make myself feel better.”
Over time, his close friends and family have watched him go through some of his darkest, most vulnerable moments with grace, humor and poise.
“He’s not had many feel-sorry-for-myself moments,” Bobby Jordan, a close friend and bandmate in the Knockoffs. “There’s been a determination to beat the tumor, to document his journey, and to build a community of other fighters and survivors, and to bring awareness to everything.”
Back in the ring
On August 4, living with a benign brain tumor, and no knowledge of whether the treatment had worked, Reynoso joined a horde of local and regional wrestlers to honor recently deceased wrestler Virgil Flynn III, a fixture in the scene who died in July at the age of 33 following complications from a seizure.
The event, which took place at the Colonial Theatre, was also a fundraiser for Flynn’s family.
For Reynoso, a semi-retired local indie wrestler who performs under the name El Flaco Loco, it feels good to lend his talents for a good cause.
“I get a lot of intrinsic rewards playing music or wrestling for a cause,” Reynoso says. “My wrestling family means the world to me. Virgil wasn’t just someone I got to train and wrestle with, he was a friend and literally a blood brother of mine. Doing that for his beautiful family was very rewarding for me.”
Reynoso started wrestling in 1999, only eight years after he started playing music. For a while, he did both at the same time, a lot. He got to see the world. He toured the country multiple times, including Europe twice with his bands.
For some, getting in the ring while suffering from a potentially fatal tumor might seem odd—frightening, even. Although Reynoso worried about his hearing and dizziness, he also knew that fighting this tumor meant not giving up on the things he loves. “I’m able to remind this tumor who’s in charge of this life,” he says.
The Flynn fundraiser wasn’t his first benefit. Over the years, Reynoso has been quick to help others. In 2003, he hosted a show to help a local musician diagnosed with cancer. That show evolved into his annual Fuck Cancer series, which he says has raised more than $22,000 for the American Cancer Society.
“The cancer benefits are my way of fighting back and giving the finger to something that hurt my friends and took too many family members of mine away from me before I was ready to say goodbye,” Reynoso says. “I’m trying to make my little nook of the world a little better.”
It’s a way of coping, really. A way to spin something positive from something awful. A way to turn something terrifying into a battle to fight. And battles can be kind of fun, can’t they? Even if some of his worst fears are realized, there’s always an upside.
If his tumor grows big enough to require brain surgery, for example, it just means he can get another tattoo—this time a Frankenstein scar to permanently mark where the doctors sliced him open with a knife.
“I will always shave my head,” he says and laughs.
Jokes aside, he’s dealing with everything one day at a time. Right now that means finishing this tattoo. Mitchell puts the finishing marks on Reynoso’s art and then steps back to show Reynoso the final image. Reynoso is thrilled with it.
Mitchell then surprises Reynoso with a gift: The tattoo is free—it would have cost hundreds of dollars, normally.
Reynoso insists on paying, but the tattoo artist won’t take his money. This unexpected act of kindness prompts Reynoso to burst into tears of joy.
“He does so much shit for everybody,” Mitchell says. “He deserves it.”
It’s a beautiful moment, but it doesn’t take away from the reality of the situation. This is a lifeline journey.
“Who knows what I’m going to find out in November? If I get the worst news possible, which is the radiation didn’t work, OK, where do I go to from there?” he wonders. “Be depressed about it and move on.”
Good or bad, moving on means fighting.
“That’s the only way you’re going to get through shit,” Reynoso says.”I kept telling myself it’s just a fight. You’re going to kick its ass.”