I’m not on the cover of “People.” You won’t see me on “The Letterman Show.” No one will create a “We all want you to make it, and beat the dam disease” fan page for me on “Facebook.” (Whew!)
I am not Michael Douglas, but I am faced with the same health threat, treatment and odds of success he is—I, and 25,000 new cases of head and neck cancer in The United States (as of 2009) and a growing number of people being treated for throat cancer.
Michael Douglas chose to go public, very public, with his disease. I have no issue with that. What he is doing is bold and informative. He will be the Rock Hudson of his day, doing for throat cancer awareness what Hudson did for AIDS and other high-profile people are doing to destigmatize breast cancer, testicular cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s. If it takes an actor to build public awareness, so be it. It might be the most genuinely productive thing to come out of Hollywood since “Birth of a Nation.”
I have wrestled for weeks with how to deal with this unexpected turning point of my life. By initial instinct, the last thing I wanted to do was to go public, and for me, publishing on this page is as public as it gets. Good news about me isn’t on anyone’s lips, blog or newsstand—I don’t have a film, play, book or really anything new to herald or promote—but any routinely random greeting these days uncomfortably reminds me how fast bad news travels, and I worry about mine catching up with me.
Everyday questions take on new meaning. “How are you?” and “How are you feeling?” have me puzzling for an answer, wondering: Does he know? Does she really want to know? Should I tell a friend what my doorman already knows? The auto-bounce-back, “Fine,” is not a viable answer.
What came to my lips at first was, “I’ve been better,” deluding myself I could ease past the moment and on to something else—the ever-handy weather, last night’s Yankee game, you!... let’s talk about you! Contrary to being a game-changer or a stopper, I learned “I’ve been better” opened more doors than it closed. Someone would let me off the hook only to wait until I was out of earshot to ask my wife or daughters what was up.
Several days ago, my reply became, “I’m all right, thank you,” followed by my walking away feeling false and awful, all the while concerned that my unsteadiness (self-perceived) would give me away and I would stumble over my own falsehood. The deceit wears on me. Doctors, advice-givers and well-wishers keep telling me how important it is for me to relax, to avoid stress, to live in the moment. But until this cathartic account, I’ve been finding the pressure of whom to tell, and when to tell if I tell, mounting and onerous. No doctor, advice-giver or well-wisher thus far has been able to tell me how “this” is done.
I haven’t made it easier on myself by demanding it be done tastefully, tactfully and (most improbably of all) sotto voce. I tell one friend not to tell anybody for now, another to let so-and-so know, please, still another that I trust his good judgment. At the end of the day, I don’t remember who knows what, and don’t care.
If Michael Douglas is a public role model, it’s fair for me to ask how he is playing this role I’m still grappling with. Is the hero of this story outwardly plucky-but-humbled, while inwardly as frightened as anyone with cancer? Did he, too, have to tell a grandchild what Poppy has is not catching? Does he have to convince more than those who know and truly love him, “I’m going to beat this!”?
Those who learn about my condition say much the same thing to me Letterman said to Douglas—“But you look great, and you don’t sound like you have throat cancer.” Only one of us could answer, “Because I am on stage,” and follow it by flashing that unmistakable Douglas father/son smile. I would have to say: Dave, I didn’t live like Michael Douglas, I didn’t smoke (for four decades), ever drink to excess, or take drugs. I would lean closer to Dave and softly add: And I didn’t have all his women.
How am I? When I was a child, I read an old saying that put life in lifelong perspective for me, its words so profound they made it impossible for me ever to feel sorry for myself: I cried because I had no shoes; then I saw a man who had no feet. Michael Douglas, 25,000 other throat cancer patients and I can beat this! Those who put a face on conditions like these make it easier for me and others to talk about it.