How This Poz DJ Spun Into Action
As the new millennium dawned in 2000, then 16-year-old Derek Canas, who had been sick most of his life, learned he was HIV-positive — and had been since acquiring the virus via a blood transfusion as an infant.
“It was very shocking,” the Brunswick, Ga., native recalls. “But also a slight relief. When I was diagnosed I’d gone through years of medical issues that had been blamed on my heart, bronchitis, pneumonia, etc. Now I finally knew the true reason.”
In 1984, Canas was born with a rare heart defect and wasn’t expected to survive. He had open heart surgery and received his first pacemaker at 3 months old. It was likely then that he became poz, but doctors assumed the illnesses that followed were related to his heart condition.
“People are often shocked at how I got the virus,” Canas tells Plus. “But considering when I had the blood transfusion, there was no HIV screener test [yet].”
Canas, who’d long suffered from reoccurring lung infections, had growth issues he says are now thought to be tied to the virus. His family later filed a malpractice suit, but the Supreme Court of Georgia eventually ruled he had no standing to sue because he learned he was poz long after the state’s statute of limitation had passed.
During those undiagnosed years, Canas received growth hormone shots, which, he told Positive Lite in 2015, “helped me gain 50 pounds and grow over a foot to 105 pounds and 5 feet tall.” But nothing seemed able to stop the reoccurring infections; and by the time he was diagnosed, his illness had advanced so far that he received a simultaneous AIDS diagnosis. Once again, it looked like Canas might not survive. But the scrawny Georgia teen was, and still is, a fighter. And he learned to laugh at life along the way.
Now 33, Canas is officially D-REK, a well-known DJ who spins at nightclubs and talks to partygoers about being poz after his shows. Canas still lives in Brunswick (a city with around 16,000 residents), but he’s performed at clubs in both Florida and Georgia. He says his audiences are surprisingly supportive.
“I’ve stood on some very big stages and finished gigs and people have heard my life story,” he says. “They shake my hand, hug me, tell me stories of people they lost to the virus. It’s very encouraging.”
Canas has continued in the fight against HIV stigma by becoming an educator who speaks frequently at Georgia schools, and also previously served as the social ambassador for Yes Get Tested Coachella Valley and BeeSafe Condoms. After one of his speaking engagements in 2014, Canas decided to do even more and launched his #EndTheStigma campaign.
Supporters, who he calls “D-REK’s Angels and Warriors,” educate others about the realities of HIV today. He says in his region of the country, many beliefs about people living with the virus are stuck in the 1990s. He hopes to change that.
“The campaign is doing good,” Canas says, even “getting noticed worldwide.” He’s connected with other activists overseas, including a group in London.
“The best part of the campaign,” Canas says, “is D-REK’s Angels and Warriors. They are like a street team for the campaign — they keep the conversation going about HIV and they have cool shirts and wristbands!”