CANCER ON $5 A Day (*chemo not included): How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life by Robert Schimmel with Alan Eisenstock (DeCapo Press, Lifelong, Perseus Books, March 15th, 2008).
Review by Nancy Yanes Hoffman, THE WRITING DOCTOR, at www.writingdoctor.typepad.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, 585-385-1515.
“If you live long enough,” my father used to say, “a little rain has to fall on your parade.” But it wasn’t a little rain that hit Robert Schimmel, the cheerfully bawdy, stand-up comedian. It was a tsunami. Actually, not one tsunami, but four (so who’s counting?).
In one decade, Schimmel’s beloved son, Derek died of a brain tumor; a heart attack hit Schimmel when he wasn’t looking; and his 22-year marriage with his first wife, Vikki split acrimoniously. Finally, cancer sidelined him on the cusp of a big break in his career.
Yet, Schimmel managed to keep his head above water and move on. Struck by stage-three non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he hit the treatment trail head on. Though cancer is no laughing matter, Schimmel tried to make a joke—or several jokes—about what even he admits was “the toughest journey of my life, ” which he records in his brave new book,CANCER ON $5 A Day (*chemo not included): How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life (DaCapo press, Lifelong Books, Perseus Books, March 15th, 2008).
As Alan Eisenstock, Schimmel’s co-author observes, “Cancer gave Robert Schimmel more material to write about. But it also gave him more heart. The disease made him see the world through wider, wiser eyes. He became more patient, more resolute, and more conscious of the power of the moment…cancer taught him how to love what he has…and his gift, making people a laugh; to love every day he’s alive.”
With cancer as their ill-gotten muse, Schimmel and Eisenstock wrote CANCER ON $5 A DAY. Their mission, they say, was to cheer the spirits of everyone—and anyone—fighting “the Big C.”
Although Schimmel is one of Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Comics, and although the publisher says that “he keeps us laughing by riffing” about all the battles engendered by fighting cancer, his book is actually not funny. Instead, it’s a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit when it refuses to give up.
Aiming at the jokey side of cancer (if such there be), Schimmel reports on the ironies of cancer's travails, peculiar events like a wig salesman trying to sell him wigs for every spot denuded by chemotherapy (yes, every spot). He can’t get over his overwhelming desire for sex during chemotherapy. “Feeling horny,” says Schimmel, “is life-affirming.”
But cancer’s dark night of the soul keeps breaking into the tale of his long, stormy treatment. So, too, does Schimmel’s predilection for erasable, deletable (not delectable) adjectives, which might make his journey a less appropriate trip for some cancer veterans.
Raw language or not, Schimmel’s courage is inspiring. For CANCER ON $5 A DAY aims at making cancer victims believe that “Schimmel got through it. Maybe there’s a chance that I can make it, too.” Of course, there are no guarantees.
But Schimmel maintains,. “It’s those things that define who you are. That was Job’s test. Flee or fight. I chose to fight.” CANCER ON $5 A DAY is an invitation to the fight with no holds barred.