Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Laughter As Medicine

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about laughter and humor, and how sometimes, in this crazy cancer journey, it is one of the only things that helps me in my moments of heavy and dark. Laughter is the best medicine? So they say...and research has shown that humor relieves stress and helps aid in the healing process. It is said that laughter actually helps reduce pain and restore a positive emotional climate, both of which are very important while trudging the cancer path.

The week before I was due to leave the country for a month, I had what I now think of as my nightmarish health trifecta week, receiving three diagnoses that by themselves seemed unbearable, and piggybacked on each other, seemed.....well...almost like comedy. Don’t get me wrong, I broke down in tears and fear at each delivery of bad news, but when I went to write about what was going on, I HAD to laugh. I knew if I did not, I might not get out of my bed...EVER.

Two out of the three diagnoses turned out to be fine. The third, however, is something that is hanging over my head, causing me those anxiety stomachaches, making me squirm when I think about it. I am having surgery on my left eyeball. WHAT? If I sit and think about stitches in my eye, I want to run to a faraway country and never return...but I know that’s not an option. So, instead I have decided to bring humor and laughter to this, in hopes of spinning myself into a positive place, rather than the usual fear-­‐based negative space. I’m thinking family eye-­‐patches are in order for the week of recovery following surgery. Want one? Get one, and we can patch-­‐out together...pirate style.

All this chatter in my head about laughter and its importance, got me thinking about a brilliant comedian and cancer warrior, Glenn Rockowitz. I connected with Glenn right after my second melanoma diagnosis, when I found his book Rodeo in Joliet, a memoir of Glenn’s battle with a very aggressive late-­‐stage cancer. Glenn is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and four-­‐time cancer survivor. He is the founder of Best Medicine, a nonprofit organization that brings comedy performances to homebound cancer and AIDS patients. He currently runs Change It Back, an adolescent and young adult cancer coalition, designed to improve treatment standards for AYA patients.

Glenn was gracious enough to talk with me about his take on life, cancer, and humor. Thank you, Glenn for this and for all that you do!!!!
Here it is...

Q: Which came first for you....comedy or cancer?
A: Irony is probably the best word to describe my entire life. And this is maybe the best example of it: I started doing comedy when I was 16, doing really bad stand-­‐up to a bunch of drunk migrant workers at a bar in south Phoenix. I wish I could say the comprehension level for my work has risen since then, but sadly, that was my peak. I did, however, continue on with my own migrant worker journey. I moved to Chicago, LA, Boston and NYC doing both improv and stand-­‐up for years in each city.
It was in NYC that I came up with the idea to bring some of the great local comics to AIDS centers and homes of homebound cancer patients. I wanted to re-­‐create the comedy club experience for the people I felt most needed the emotional break. We did hundreds of shows and the reaction was incredible. Enter the irony: Two years after I started this organization, I was diagnosed with a very aggressive late-­‐stage cancer myself and given the prognosis of “three months at best.” I was 28-­‐years old, my wife was 8 month pregnant with our only child and I had three months left to live. I know it sounds exciting, but try not to be jealous.

Q: Tell us about your experience as a comedian, providing laughs for those living with cancer, and what your view is on cancer and comedy?
A: The shows we did for people in the last weeks of their lives were the most amazing. You’re dealing with people who have, for the most part, made peace with death. They don’t really fear anything, they’re not shy about talking about regret and love and forgiveness and everything in between. Seeing them laughing was an insane catharsis for everyone. And I found myself being moved to tears—and never tears of sadness of grief—more often than not. What I saw is pretty hard to put into words. In a way, it’s like asking a mother to describe childbirth. If you haven’t experienced it yourself with your own body and soul, then it’s just words, a two-­‐ dimensional black and white picture. What I saw, and what I’ve experienced firsthand since, is what adds the depth and the dimension and the color. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it is infinitely beautiful...a crack of white light on a black horizon. If I hadn’t been able to laugh during my own battles (I’ve had 3 additional primary cancers since the first) then I think I would’ve given up. It wasn’t that I took any of it lightly—anything but—but the ability to laugh gave me the only light I could find. And it’s still the only light I can find in my days.

Q: How does humor help you in your journey with cancer?
A: It keeps me from drowning. There are so many parts of cancer—and many diseases for that matter—that can crush you if you let it. I’m not a believer in the “a positive attitude is all you need” bullshit, but I do think laughter is its own version of that philosophy that allows you to add light without having to lose the gravity of your reality. Humor has always been a coping mechanism for me. It kept me from being teased for being shitty at sports, it kept me from having to get in fights as a kid, and it worked for just about any situation where I needed to disarm tension-­‐ social, health, professional or otherwise. I have no doubt I would’ve killed myself long ago if I didn’t have that part of my brain (humor) that kept reminding me that everything is small, even when it’s not. That everything will okay if you just hang on.

Q: Can you describe the night you were to perform and had just recently received your cancer diagnosis?
A: Well, that’s another bit of sweet irony in my long journey through this disease. Almost two months into my three-­‐month death sentence, I was asked to speak at a medical conference about the healing powers of humor. Weird, since I was dying rapidly and no amount of laughter was going to pull me out of that tailspin. Instead of re-­‐capping it, I’ll just excerpt a part of my book:
The room is quiet now and I love the sound of nothingness.
When the silence is broken by muffled laughter or applause of the audience,
I realize that after 13 years of performing, this will be my last time in front of a crowd.
I clench my fists.
Why am I here?
Why am I wasting my time with this bullshit when I should be home with Jen and Danny?
I should be home and I’m throwing away the time I have left.
What the fuck am I doing?
I hear my name being announced.
I stand and I wipe the sweat from my face and I walk to the door and I push it open.
There is a flood of light from the room and I can feel the electricity of hundreds of faces staring at me. I hear the applause and I see Steve standing at the podium smiling.
I walk up to him and he hands me the microphone and I look out into the crowd and I see my mother and John and Andy and I speak.
“Steve Pearlman, everyone!”
Big applause.
“Steve Pearlman! Let him hear ya!”
Big applause.
Ten seconds.
The applause starts dying down.
“Steve Pearlman! C’mon! Show him how much you love him!”
The applause reluctantly starts up again.
I start to sense the discomfort in the room and I milk it.
“Steeeeve Pearllllmannn...!”
Uncomfortable chuckles.
I see Steve at the back wall and I see his eyes are scanning the room for unhappy people. He looks panicked.
The applause finally dies down and the chuckles stop.
I look around the room and I say nothing.
Another ten seconds pass.
Twenty seconds.
I’ve hit the sweet spot.
This is it.
Forty seconds.
I see Steve panicking in the back of the room.
His assistant walks up to him and whispers something into his ear. His huge forehead is shiny from sweat and he glares at me wide-­‐eyed.
One minute passes.
I break the tension.
“Steve Pearlman, everyone!”
A smattering of laughter.
“C’mon! Keep it going...I have no material and I’ve been asked to speak for an hour, so let’s have another round of applause for Steve Pearlman!”
Big laughs.
I yell.
“Keep it going! Fifty-­‐nine minutes left!”
Sweet fucking laughter.
I start my speech and I speak for almost twenty minutes before I realize that everything I am saying is complete and utter bullshit.
How the hell can I talk about people who are dying as though they’re a bunch of lab rats? It sounds condescending and arrogant and aloof and
I am one of these people.
Tell them the truth, Glenn. Tell them the fucking truth.
“I’m sorry. I need to stop for a second here. I’ve been rambling on about all of this like a scientist. And ya know what? This is bullshit.”
Dead silence.
Nervous laughter.
I can see in their eyes that they’re not sure if I’m joking around.
“I wasn’t expecting to say anything publicly, but I feel like a fraud standing up here.”
I start to sweat again.
I look at my mother and John and my friend Andy and they all look uncomfortable.
“You see, I’m telling you all about the shows we do for people who are dying and how I can see the freedom in their eyes when we are able to make them laugh and...”
My eyes start to well up.
I look at my mother and see her heart sink.
My breathing gets shallow.
The room is dead silent.
I feel dizzy.
I breathe in slowly.
one of those people...”
Andy’s eyes are like saucers.
I’m sorry, Andy. I’m sorry.
“I was diagnosed a few weeks ago...”
I see my mother’s face and she is crying.
I’m sorry, Mom.
“...and according to my doctors, I’ll be dead in a couple months.”
The energy in the room is tense and awkward and it feels like I’m standing here with a loaded gun in my mouth.
No one says a word.
No one knows what to do.

I am a ten-­‐car highway pile-­‐up.
I stand and I stare.
I know that for everyone here, this will simply be an entertaining anecdote or a great conversation for the plane ride home or a crazy happy hour tale for friends at the hotel bar.
I am going to be their Story.
Fuck that.
Time is precious and I need to stop wasting it by pretending that I have any of it to waste.
I need to go home.
I need to be selfish and I need to ask for help.
I need to hold Danny.
I need to kiss him and dance with him and read to him and feed him and talk to him.
I need to ask for his forgiveness and I need to be forgiven.
I need to see Jen and I need to hold her and kiss her and tell her that I
am sorry.
I need to tell her to stop wasting the time I have left being angry.
I need to forgive myself.
I need to survive.

Q: What do you believe to be the greatest impact humor/comedy has on this population?
A: It has a magical quality that nothing else in this world can equal. It catapults you 30,000 feet into the air and lets you see — even if just for a second — the size of everything. I think it is so valued in all cultures for that simple fact. No matter how rich or poor you are, no matter how healthy or sick, no matter how crushed you can feel by any given moment, it’s like an invisible tap on the shoulder that lets you know you will be ok. Sorry if this is repetitive, but it’s just the truth. The plain, f-­‐ing truth.

Rodeo in Joliet was released April 2009. By early 2010, the book became a word-­‐of-­‐ mouth best seller and was subsequently optioned to become a major motion picture. It was reported in Variety that the film is to be adopted by screenwriter Ryan Knighton and released in 2013.


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