Do you like graveyard humor? Bedside and doctor jokes? If you have a stronger than usual stomach and you're tired of smiley faces and sentimental get-well cards that ignore the fact that illness involves real, often unattractive suffering, if your funny bone is tickled by funny stories about bones, you'll want to read Robert Schimmel's true-life adventures with The Big C.
Schimmel was a comedian whose fortunes were in the fast lane – HBO specials, bestselling CDs, and sold-out club appearances – when, in 2000, he learned to his horror that he had Stage III Hodgkin's Lymphoma, hardly a fit subject for a stand-up monologue. Unless you choose to make it so funny it doesn't hurt so much, which is what Schimmel has done in Cancer on $5 a Day. He tries to keep the dread news light by indulging in some grim repartee with his docs and putting a smile on the faces of the fellow patients he encounters.
It isn't always easy. At one group session he hears from some other cancer sufferers:
"One guy, testicular, tells us that he was diagnosed five years ago and now he's skiing and snowboarding and skydiving. I choke up when he speaks. I vow that that's going to be me. Minus the skiing and snowboarding and skydiving."
After a second patient admits to a return of his lymphoma, causing others to gasp and weep, Schimmel decides to get the crowd back on keel by delivering a blow-by-blow of his first CAT scan:
"Then the nurse says, 'You're gonna have this sensation like you're peeing in your pants. But you're not really peeing in your pants.' And I say, 'What if I really do pee in my pants?'" The comic leaves his "audience" howling. "They need this. They need the distraction, the change of pace, the release."
Coaxing laughter out of his medical team and his chemo companions is one side of the story. But Schimmel still has to walk that lonesome valley by himself. He tries pot, Reiki, and crystal therapy. He talks to a rabbi AND a chaplain. Learning that the cancer will affect his ability to produce children, he undergoes a testicle implant, reporting almost wistfully, "Nobody's asked about the fake ball during sex." He has seven sessions of chemo, the last one sufficient to teach him "I'm human," as his immune system crashes. He has to decide he wants to survive, "which is not easy with cancer-killing poison coursing through my body, my face eternally hovering an inch above the toilet bowl, and my body feeling either as cold as Antarctica or as hot as the surface of the sun." Visions of his children and his father inspire him. He holds on.
When he's told he's finally in remission, he says to his doctor, "I'm trying to cry but you've been beating the shit out of me for six months and I got no crying left."
Cancer is mean. It requires strong medicine and a strong will. Schimmel got both. But he also stepped outside the bounds of his own suffering to make others laugh. To make me laugh. And you. Making people laugh is a life-giving force for a comedian. So, what's the downside?