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Cancer and Cigarettes

by Brian Lobel

For better or for worse, in the four years since surviving cancer, I have gotten used to getting what I want on a consistent basis. Because of this fact, when I was recently denied a bummed cigarette by my new best friend, Samantha, I instantaneously felt myself filled with a reaction most childlike and violent. I want I want I want. Gimme Gimme Gimme!

I understand not giving a cigarette to every random on the street, but me? Her new best friend, Brian? Samantha craned her head back, studying me with eyes squinted. "I can't. Seriously, no. I can't." Her fingers were still inside her pack of Parliaments and so I cautiously asked again, figuring that there was still time. She smiled, recognizing how cheap she sounded and how patronizing she was going to sound in about 20 seconds. "I mean, didn't you have cancer, like, in your lung?" She slapped the cigarette case shut and placed it in her back pocket it would now be inconvenient for her to give me one. Damnit. I want I want I want...

It had been 2 weeks since I had originally met Samantha and because we had talked for a total of 5 minutes in our relationship, I had forgotten that I even told her about how I had had cancer. And I only told her because she was a minor celebrity and wanted to sound impressive.

(Maybe celebrity is the wrong word for Samantha. Television personality, perhaps more accurate, although the show she hosts is carried on the Do It Yourself Network, seen by a microscopically small number of people brave enough to flip past Channel 250.)

And I certainly didn't tell Samantha I had cancer in hopes of trumping her television success but rather to explain my solo performance, BALL, that I currently tour to medical schools and college campuses. Undoubtedly, the average person asks me "What do you do? Why medical schools? Ooh, cancer? Are you better?" In that particular order. So I usually just tell people I'm a smoothie-maker at a gym in Chicago, doling out protein shakes to the upwardly mobile. I'd prefer to skip the whole predictable conversation.

That predictable cancer conversation is not only boring, but stressful. I've had it thousands of times, often multiple times in a single day. Yes, I was diagnosed at 20 with Stage III metastatic testicular cancer... Yes, it was terrible... Yes, I'm so lucky to be alive... Blah blah cancer blah... Others have not had this predictable conversation multiple times a day and for most people in their 20s, this conversation is unexpected, jolting, and definitely worthy of pause. How many times a day must I be expected to get it up and wax elegant about illness and survival? Every nuance must be understood, each drug name memorized, every similar condition experienced by their second cousins compared and analyzed...

So there are the randoms that I meet and with whom my cancer comes up immediately - and then there are those individuals I've met post-cancer who I have never had the cancer talk with. It's a completely different kind of effect. In our friendship, we glide along effortlessly until one day, it mysteriously sneaks out, like gas stealthily passed in a crowded elevator. Unfortunately, just like the passed gas, after hearing about my cancer, people are stopped dead in their tracks and curl up their face in disbelief. I could have just told them that I was in the witness protection program, or that I was a convicted sex offender a huge gulf is instantaneously created. While the gulf is often filled with well-meaning compassion or wholehearted empathy, it is, nonetheless, spacious between us.

The moment my hidden cancerous past is revealed, I immediately try to reject all the unearned respect I will assuredly receive. I'm not better, I'm not stronger, I'm the same I was 5 seconds ago it's just your perspective that has changed...it's just your perspective that has changed. But even this mantra eventually feels stiflingly redundant.

And then, of course, there's a third group of people to whom my cancer causes drama. The people, well, person, that jerk with no perspective who I know would shut up about his 6-month internship in Mali (which he deems as his time spent living in poverty) if I just dropped the cancer bomb. It would be so beautiful. Swift, like a flawless slaughter...Mali? Cancer. ffft, blood, death. "Finish him." But can I? Should I? Even if it does get such a man to shut up about his long camping trip abroad, he is then going to start that predictable line of questioning about how many cycles of chemotherapy I had and whether or not I believe there exists a conspiracy to deny cancer patients affordable cures because of the bottom line of Pfizer and Merck. Rocks to my left, hard places to my right. So, I usually just feign interest in the man's faux poverty and struggle and remain silent about the hero I know I am.

Well, one may ask, Brian, if you don't want people to talk to me about your cancer, shouldn't you stop performing about cancer? Shouldn't you stop writing about cancer? Hmm... Good point, I think, and then do nothing.

There's no neat ending, which I guess I'm trying to embrace. No gestalt or moment of tidy closure. Or maybe I'm just still not over it. Hmm.

I eventually got a cigarette from Samantha, not because she forgot about the former lesions in my lungs but because she recognized that if I wanted to carpe-each-post-cancer-diem by smoking a cigarette, well, I should be able to do whatever the hell I want. I do kind of like how that works out.

Brian Lobel is a solo performer and writer in Chicago. He has spent the last three years performing my play, BALL: A Traumedy, for medical schools around the country through a grant from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation. Brian invites readers to learn more at www.brianlobel.com.