Robert Schimmel has perhaps been one of the more controversial authors of cancer memoirs. In his professional life as a stand-up comic, he has always been known for a raw form of humor replete with obscenities and sexual references. Difficulties in his personal life recently seem to mirror his on-stage persona. But our primary obligation in discussing a book is to focus on the writing and the story. Biography should be the background and not the context of the discussion. Cancer happens to all kinds of people. All people have foibles and dark closets.
Schimmel seemed to have everything going for him when he was diagnosed with stage III non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He had just won Comic of the Year and had starred in an HBO special. He was ready to sign for a sit-com on the Fox Network. He is working hard. Then come the familiar symptoms: fatigue, chills, night sweats. Run down? working too hard? … or lymphoma?
Schimmel is not unfamiliar with cancer. He had a child, Derek, that died of it. Hard on his marriage. He has married and divorced the same woman three times. A nodal biopsy at Mayo and a second opinion confirms the diagnosis. You think about dying…Even before you get the news. The thought creeps into your head, takes a seat, and stays there, the elephant in your brain.
The comic relates meetings with his oncologist, the chaplain, and his nurses. It is clear that he will use his sense of humor as a primary coping mechanism. His medical team and other clinic patients enjoy this approach. He’ll retain an audience even as he endures treatment. His personal life is more complicated. His about-to-be-divorced wife, Vicki, volunteers to care for him duriung his ordeal, welcoming him back home to be with her and their children. Schimmel considers it unfair to lay the burden of his illness on his girlfriend, Melissa, nearly half his age. For reasons that probably made sense at the time, he breaks up with her without even revealing his diagnosis.
Humor propels him down the road of cancer treatment. He finds comic fodder in hair loss, nausea, extreme fatigue, even playing the “cancer card.” I need to make people laugh. That’s what fuekls me, feeds me, stirs my soul. Making people laugh defines me.
As with his art, so goes his life. Sex is a big party of his comic routine because it is a big part of his life, or maybe he’s just more candid about this than the rest of us. Doesn’t matter what’s going on with mu body. I can be aching all over, weak, bleary-eyed, throwing up, and have diarrhea, but if a cute woman walks by, my mind goes ‘Boy, would I love to have sex with her.’
We leave this week’s discussion as Schimmel enters the “exploratory” phase of his illness journey in which he embraces all and any approach to fighting cancer.
Next Reading Assignment: Chapters 4 and 5, to page 134.
Discussion Questions: What about cancer drives one to consider alternative or complimentary approaches to adding to the battle arsenal? Can you relate this to your own experience? Schimmel suffers some bodily disfiguration. How does that affect his and your own (if that’s the case) self-image? Schimmel has a scare regarding testicular cancer. How did you deal with ancillary threats during your illness?