by Chris Brewer
Q. It’s Father’s Day, and so we’re focusing on men’s health. What are a couple of observations you’ve seen about how men are facing this issue these days?
First of all, Happy Father’s Day everyone! I think (and hope) more men are taking steps towards early detection. I kind of look at it the way I look at wearing a bike helmet. I’d much rather not wear a helmet, but then I imagine someone having to tell my sons: “Um, sorry dudes, your Dad died because he fell off his bike and hit his head on a curb.” I’m not saying I have to die in a blaze of glory, but man, I do not want my kids to see their old man go out like that. So when it comes to my health, I’d rather just suck it up and get a check-up. And if it takes a hypothetical conversation with my kids to motivate me, so be it. Whatever it takes.
Another thing we combat as men facing cancer is stigma, some of it self-imposed. Ideas like: “We should be strong. We shouldn’t fall apart. We should be able to go it alone. We should keep our emotions in check.” I think that when you’re hit with a potentially devastating situation you’ve never confronted before, like cancer, it’s hard not to default to these sorts of ridiculous ideas about manhood because you want to be “brave.” But bravery and courage are not the absence of fear. They are the willingness to keep going in spite of fear.
So if you can allow yourself to be afraid, and to cry, and to reel, and to stumble, and to reach out to others for support, you can keep going in spite of your fear. I think we all have incredible courage inside of us, but – and this is somewhat counterintuitive – often the way to release that courage begins with the acceptance of our own fears. There’s no sense pretending you’ve “got it all under control” because brother, you do not have it all under control right now, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean everything will spiral out of control. It just means that for now you’ll have to win sometimes, maybe lose a few rounds, but above all stay focused on winning the fight. Your courage – true courage — will give you a measure of self-respect you have likely never known. If ever there were a time to heed the words of Vince Lombardi it is now: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
Q. Talk about your diagnosis, what was the process you took leading up to it, and what – if anything – would you now do differently?
My otherwise hypochondriac father, who I love and adore, had been prudently having pre-cancerous polyps removed by colonoscopy beginning at age 40. He began hounding me, my brother, my older sister and probably even my kid sister (who was only 11) that we needed to have a colonoscopy when we turned 40 as well. I went for my checkup when I hit the big 4-0 but I was too frightened afterwards to get the colonoscopy my doctor prescribed. There was something about a metallic device traveling up my rear end that I found profoundly uninviting. So I ignored it, and instead went to get the chest X-Ray my doctor had also recommended because I thought: “Hey, it’s just a chest X-Ray. No biggie.”
A week later my doctor phoned to say he thought he’d seen something on my left lung in the X-Ray (“Nothing to worry about but I just want to make sure.”) so he sent me for a CAT scan. An hour after my scan he called and said, in a trembling voice, that the CAT scan revealed that he’d been right: there was nothing on my left lung, BUT they’d found a mass on my other lung, and another mass on my liver! Fortunately, the mass on my liver was later revealed to be a (harmless) cyst on my kidney but the mass on my lung was, in fact, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Discovered completely by accident. If I had it to do all over again, I would have gone in for the colonoscopy right away. Although it wouldn’t have altered my medical outcome, as it were, it’s just stupid to shun a test because it sounds icky. I’ve learned that testing is far preferable to treatment.
Q. You’ve written that you found it helpful in your own fight with cancer to read about other people’s medical ordeals. Wouldn’t more “cancer talk” be the last thing a person going through, or helping someone go through a cancer battle would want to expose themselves to?
I felt very alone with my cancer, in spite of all the support I had from friends and family. It was incredibly disorienting. There are certain experiences – both positive and negative – that can only be understood by people who have been through them; everything from combat, to heroin addiction, to making love. I think serious illness fits into that group as well; it’s unique in its own special way. I read Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness during my treatment and I felt that even though he didn’t have cancer, by virtue of having a life-threatening illness he’d somehow walked in my shoes, and I could relate to him. He talked about his own survival strategies, several of which I used myself (one of them was to watch a lot of funny movies). Plus he’d survived which gave me a great deal of hope.
I understand how sometimes even hearing someone mention Cancer the zodiac sign can ruffle you when you’re in the thick of a cancer fight. It’s hard not to feel that cancer is everywhere when you’ve got it. But hope is everywhere too, and it’s worth seeking out. One place to find that sort of hope is in survivor stories. There’s a tremendous power in commiseration with others, not only to make you feel less alone, but also to help you become more accepting of yourself. Cancer can make anyone act childish and ridiculous, not to mention angry and obtuse, and it’s important to know that and not get down on yourself for being a human being with emotions.
In addition to survival strategies, other people’s stories often include what I call “tricks of the trade” that you can’t really learn anywhere else. Stuff like: “make a list of questions when you go see your doctor so you don’t have to remember them on the spot.”
Q. You write about the importance of bringing someone to your medical appointments. Why is that, and what other practical tips do you suggest for people in the thick of it with cancer.
Yes, absolutely. When I’d go to my oncologist or surgeon’s appointments it was virtually impossible for me to listen attentively to what they were saying because I was so worried about what they might say. Was there some complication? Had they seen another tumor? I was listening “defensively;” bracing myself for the next bombshell and not really hearing what was said. When I realized this I started bringing a friend or family member with me to all my appointments that could truly listen and confirm with me afterwards what had actually transpired. They would also help ensure that during my appointment I’d ask whatever questions I’d prepared in advance.
Another revelation for me had to do with email. The ritual of keeping your support team up-to-date with your medical news can be exasperating. People care, they want to know what’s going on, but you don’t necessarily want to answer dozens of emails, phone calls, or Facebook messages on appointment or procedure days. So I started sending out one update email to everyone, detailing whatever my news was and letting them know that this email was the way to know all my latest medical news. There was no need to call for that purpose. It made things so much easier for all of us. My family and friends felt engaged, and I could get some mental downtime to prepare myself for whatever was next. Anxiety is contagious, and you’ve got enough of your own to confront without having to assuage the fears of your loved ones. An update email is a good way for them to stay current and help support each other without involving you.
Perhaps the most important practical tip I can share is this: try to avoid scaring yourself unnecessarily. I’m a big fan of a quote attributed to John Kennedy, Jr., that “nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems.” Remember that until you definitely have something, you do not have it. Doctors spend an awful lot of time ruling out possibilities; it is part of their job and it is also a way to avoid malpractice suits (Doctors live in the real world and sometimes test for things they’re quite confident you don’t have). Fighting cancer requires a careful expenditure of your physical and mental energies. Try your best to conserve them whenever possible.
(ed: you can get many cancer tips and strategies in the LIVESTRONG Guidebook)
Q. Your cancer, non-Hodgkins MALT lymphoma, is not considered curable. How do you deal with the fear of recurrence?
Like a true hero and role model, I panic and freak out and wonder if any of my ex-girlfriends will show up at my funeral… On the plus side, I tend to limit these activities to the day before I go in for my annual check-up. I tell myself that if there is a God, hopefully his idea of a joke isn’t for me to get cancer again (God may be omnipotent but it doesn’t mean he has a good sense of humor). And most important, I try to think of recurrence in binary terms: either it will come back, or it won’t. I have no control over that part, although I can definitely make an effort to live a reasonably healthy life and to make the most of my time on Earth.
Once you’ve had cancer, even if it never physically recurs, it stays with you intellectually and emotionally for the rest of your life, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s good to know your time on Earth is limited, and that each moment you live well is worthwhile. It’s also good to have an excuse to pursue your dreams. I don’t want to get cancer again, and I don’t want to die. But I realized quite profoundly when I got lymphoma for the first time (I’ve had one recurrence since) that what would be worse is to be filled with regret when I die. A wise playwright once taught me that true tragedy is having to ask yourself: “Why didn’t I?” So I try to pursue my dreams, and I make it a point to spend time with my kids, my wife, and my family and friends. These are regret-proof activities, even if every interaction doesn’t go perfectly smoothly.
Q. You got your first cancer diagnosis at the same time as 9/11, and your marriage and business were falling apart as well. Did you then or do you now see cancer as just another “crisis?”
Yes and no. On September 11, 2001, just after my then-wife and I had fetched our first grader from his school in lower Manhattan, I had this crazy thought that “this is what it feels like to have cancer.” At the time we New Yorkers had no idea what was going on. Were we being invaded? Had a couple of airplane pilots simply gone insane? At first no one knew. And for me that sense of confusion perfectly mirrored my own feelings about having lymphoma. I’d just learned I had a recurrence and it wasn’t clear what my long- or short-term prognosis was, or if this meant I should get chemo and radiation this time. So in a strange way, especially emotionally, I felt a lot of what they call “crossover” between my health crisis, my marriage crisis, my personal financial crisis, and the maniacal attacks on the city where I lived.
And though each of these major life crises is materially different, from a psychological standpoint, I think they still have much in common. In the case of cancer, I don’t feel enough attention is paid to the psychological trauma visited upon patients, perhaps because it’s so often trumped by the physical traumas of surgery, chemo, radiation, and bone marrow transplants, to name a few.
Even if you survive, and thankfully, more people are surviving than ever before, there is a kind of emotional and existential blowback that wallops you after treatment. “What did I just go through? Will it happen again? Should I go back to my life as it was or do I sell everything and go work for the poor in Central Africa? Can I still lead a full life?” I remember the day I first came home from the hospital. Everyone around me was understandably anxious to move on from the ordeal but I felt like I was still in it.
For me, cancer has been and always will be its own distinct crisis, but as time has gone on, I’ve begun to see it as a part of my life, like other crises, whether or not it ever recurs.
Q. LIVESTRONG provides free cancer navigation services – helping people with cancer, right now – did you use any similar services, or go it alone? If you did go it alone, would these services have been helpful?
I went it alone and honestly, I’m not quite sure why. I think I just didn’t know what was available at the time. I’ve since learned so much about the LIVESTRONG Foundation I know that I would definitely avail myself if/when my cancer comes back. It’s so wonderful to be able to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through. It’s incredibly inspirational to hear about people who made it through cancer. The LIVESTRONG Foundation makes that possible and equally important, it has done more to diminish the “stigma” associated with cancer than any other organization in the world. As a result, people like me feel empowered to reach out to other cancer survivors and patients and share our stories. That to me is a large part of what healing is; reaching out to each other to help in an atmosphere of openness, caring, and refreshing honesty.
Q. Why do you feel humor is such an important part of fighting and surviving cancer?
I don’t know who first said laughter is the best medicine, but they were right. I think there’s a deeper reason for this beyond the sheer pleasure of having a laugh. Cancer is overwhelming, and humor allows you to create an ironic distance from your disease so that it can’t overwhelm you. Humor can be both a sword and a shield; a source of strength in your time of weakness.
I would often play a game with myself called, “What could I get away with because I have cancer?” I’d imagine cutting in line at the grocery checkout (“Hey I’m really sorry but I have cancer”) or convincing the attractive woman seated next to me on the bus to go out with me (“I have cancer. You’d actually be doing a good deed!”). I watched funny movies, I read anything I thought would make me laugh, and I imagined my doctor in his underwear. It all made CANCER feel more like cancer.
Q. Why do you think your book has struck such a chord with caregivers and medical professionals as well as patients/survivors?
Yikes. It’s hard to answer that question without sounding like a pompous jerk. But that’s never stopped me before so here goes…
“Now It’s Funny” is really funny. It’s not because I’m some comic genius. Far from it…just ask my wife. But I’m neurotic, and I ask a lot of questions, and I admit to thinking about a lot of things that polite society would have me keep to myself (e.g. “There’s something not entirely unpleasant about this colonoscopy after all.”) Readers tell me that they see a lot of themselves reflected in my story and my experiences, and they’re happy that someone’s given voice to it, warts-and-all.
Doctors and nurses have told me that they’ve “never seen that perspective from a patient before.” We sometimes forget that they are human too, and they have fears and worries and regrets that can be quite like those of their patients. Plus they haven’t necessarily had cancer themselves, so it can be instructive for them to learn what a patient experiences but doesn’t tell them.
Here’s a good example. When I go to my oncologist’s office after a test, the most important thing I want to know is: “do I have cancer again?” It’s so important to me that within the first nanosecond of her entering the room, I am already scrutinizing every aspect of her demeanor for a clue. She’s not smiling. Does that mean I have cancer? She closed the door and cleared her throat. Is there really something in her throat or do I have a new tumor and she’s hesitating before telling me? While this is just a slight exaggeration of my thought process, I know I’m not alone, and none of this mental rigamarole is visible to my doctor or anyone else’s. My doc probably just needs a drink of water before she tells me that my test results are clear. The point is a lot goes on between doctor, nurse, and patient, much of it unspoken.
Q. What do you hope people take away from your book?
I survived, and I hope people feel inspired by my survival the way the survival of others inspired me. Mostly I hope they will be entertained and laugh themselves silly at my expense. I know I still do. It’s hard to believe someone so smart could act so dumb, which probably means I’m not that smart after all. But please don’t tell my mother.
Q. The cover of your book features a man on a street in a hospital gown trying to hail a taxi. His naked rear end is clearly visible through the slit in the back of the gown. What exactly were you thinking when you chose this image for the book cover?
It’s my visual representation of how vulnerable you often feel as a cancer patient. I think anybody who’s had cancer can look at that picture, and that gown, and say: “Yep. I know what that feels like.” The number of strangers who have peered at my naked bottom is staggering. But evidently, having my gown open in back makes it easier to administer to my medical needs. And for me, not caring about it reminds me that with cancer, you gotta keep plowing forward and let the little stuff go.
Thanks so much for your time, Michael – and Happy Father’s Day!
About the book “Now It’s Funny” – Hailed by the likes of Fran Drescher and A.J. Jacobs, Now It’s Funny: How I Survived Cancer, Divorce, and Other Looming Disasters is a modern hybrid, on one hand a page-turning medical thriller, and on the other a hilarious romp through the mind of a man bedazzled by fatherhood and midlife. What makes it so different from other “illness” memoirs is that it reads like a movie: in its frenetic pace, its intensity, and its improbable and relentless humor. In the same way that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was grounded in a cancer story, Now It’s Funny… transcends its medical milieu and tells a heartfelt story about a father’s search for meaning and his undying devotion to his sons.
Amazon (Paperback & Kindle) – https://www.createspace.com/3655639
Barnes & Noble (Nook) – http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/now-its-funny-michael-solomon/1108916982
iTunes (iPad/iPhone) – https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/now-its-funny/id504153968?mt=11