Earlier this week I had an opportunity to perform an evening of magic for a hundred seniors in the community where I live. This was my first public performance since I had officially retired from my 35-year career as a professional stage magician in 2014. That was the same year I discovered that I had breast cancer. It's important to note that my diagnosis and mastectomy were in no way connected to my retirement. That all happened after my decision to close the curtain on magic once and for all and search for an interesting, meaningful occupation to finish up my time on Earth.
I knew I wanted to be a magical entertainer from the time I was 12 years old. Through this ancient and mysterious art form I was able to make a good living and travel to more than 60 countries. In leaving, there was no sadness or remorse. Life had been good, and I expected the next years to be good also.
Cancer showed up about six months after my final performances in California. A cancer diagnosis, I quickly found out, requires some instantaneous decision-making, not unlike the sort of quick reaction a magician makes when something goes wrong in his act.
No matter how many times we "rehearse" our lives, planning the future and plotting our course, we can be swiftly rebuffed in our efforts to guide our own destiny by something like a cancer diagnosis. A good magician (or at least an experienced one) rehearses all of the possible mishaps that might occur in his or her act—because they do happen. Mishaps are a part of performing and a part of life.
But as I compare this strategy to my own cancer experience, I have to wonder if there is any correlation. What do we do when our chemotherapy stops working? What is the back-up plan for cancer metastasis? Is there an alternative way of thinking when my fear or anxiety appears, like the proverbial rabbit from a top hat?
When a magician errs during a show, as I did the other night on several occasions, he has four choices of action:
With regard to my cancer, I've never seen any viable choice that has a chance of working other than number four. When I drop a deck of cards on the stage floor during a shuffle, I know that my choices are limited. Once, in a show a long time ago, I did just that. There was a hush in the audience as though their collective breaths had been frozen in their chests. I remember looking at the pile of cards under my feet and saying, "Well it's a good thing that floor was there, or those cards would have just kept on goin'!"
It was incongruent, silly, disarming, surprising and judging from the audience reaction, funny too.
I have long used laughter as means to lower stress when my cancer reminds me of its presence. I can't pretend it doesn't exist, cover it up or run away from its appearance. I have no magic wand to whisk it away, but a little humor has a way of disarming the tension.
I also have another trick up my sleeve. It's the knowledge and support I get from fellow cancer survivors, caregivers and medical professionals. It's not unlike having a great book of Wizardry available to me, except for the fact that the pages of this book contain only the magic of modern medicine. No illusions here.
So, when our dove refuses to fly, the cards fall to the floor or the levitation loses its lift, I recommend a good, well-rehearsed backup plan to regain our momentum and a good laugh to remind us that no matter how hard we plan for perfection, stuff happens. And that's how it is with cancer in our lives. The trick is in the knowing that "the show must go on". And like those cards that were left on the floor; our down days, disappointing lab reports and discouraging results can be left there too. We're ready for the next trick, the one that just may defeat cancer in our lives.
Do you believe in magic?