Saturday, June 19, 2010

#190: Book Review - Cancer on $5 a Day...

"There they are!!!"
So we're driving through the parking lot of our local big box mega mall looking for the sporting goods store so we can stock up on LIVESTRONG bracelets, when all of a sudden Mum pipes up, "THERE ! I SEE DICKS UP AHEAD!!!" That's right. My seventy-one year old mother sees dicks in the parking lot..

This is the kind of experience you can expect when you open Cancer on $5 a Day (chemo not included) by Robert Schimmel. Two things you need to know about Schimmel: he does not pull punches, and his work is not appropriate for most church services. As collaborator Alan Eisenstock puts it, Schimmel works "blue. Deep blue. This may not be the book to sit around the fireplace reading aloud to your mom. My mom? She laughed herself to tears.

Schimmel's journey begins at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. He and his parents are waiting for news of the biopsy he just had on a lump in his left arm. Two doctors enter the room.
"Robert," the lump doctor says. I sit up. With a slight flourish, he gestures to the other doctor as if he's the grand prize on a game show. "This is Dr. Mehldau. He's going to be your oncologist."
"Oncologist?" I hear myself say. "You mean I have cancer?"
So much for breaking it to you gently. But then, there's not much gentle about cancer treatment. Except the people you meet. And that's where Schimmel's comic razor meets his unique genius. He loves people. He meets idiots, clods, and oafs and finds them fascinating, (and hysterically funny). His gratitude for the care he receives is matched by his own instinctive desire to make people laugh. It's the force that drives him, and he puts it to use without mercy. I will not spend the rest of this review spoiling all his best jokes. I won't tell you about the grumpy guy in the infusion room or the chaplain who lets him bum a smoke, but I will tell you that there is a story about a merkin salesman who visits his room that is worth at least twice the price of this book all by itself.

Schimmel is brutal with only one person in the book: himself. He looks at his own life and refuses to blink. There is nothing hidden here, and that honesty is what makes  this more than just a funny book about a serious subject. To be honest, parts of it scared the hell out of me. I think his chapter called "Giving Up" might be the most frightening thing I have ever read about cancer. But it is also the most inspiring. His family never give up, and when he is ready to, they refuse to let him. It is a deeply moving moment in a tragic, comic life.

Schimmel's struggles go on. According to his last Facebook posts, he is currently waiting on a liver transplant. If mine were worth a damn, I would gladly give him a hunk. I can't wait to read the next chapter in his life.

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