I’m Learning to Outsmart Cancer

If I put all my energy into fighting breast cancer, I’d be bringing the disease into focus every day. Instead, I’m working on outsmarting cancer.

Male breast cancer hit me with a swift blow; there was no warning and little fanfare. That seems to be the way cancer operates — it sneaks up on us and feeds on our stability, comfort and future plans. It messes with our minds while attacking our bodies and, in some cases, it can tarnish our hopes and sidetrack our dreams.

Cancer is a clever adversary.

For the first few weeks after my breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy, I was caught up in the disorienting spin of the cancer’s ambiguity, wondering how to tame this invisible intruder.

I was careful to acknowledge my disease by addressing it head-on without pushing away the reality and severity of the issues at hand, but one urgent question I had was, “How in the world was I going to spend the remainder of my life?”

After settling into my new challenges and becoming an advocate for male breast cancer, I was fortunate to spend a week in an intensive program in California called “Project Lead,” interacting with some of the prominent pioneers in the field of breast cancer. I was astounded to learn about the way cancer cells can disguise themselves as normal cells by releasing a protein that tells the body to leave the tumor alone, thus finding the means to infect us further with the disease.

I could see that surviving wasn’t going to be easy, but I felt that if I let cancer call all the shots, I would give up some of my drive and resilience. I wasn’t sure if I could change the course my breast cancer would take, but I felt certain that I had plenty of opportunities to confront the disease while living life fully, day by day.

I knew that I could put all my energy into fighting, but in doing that I would bring my cancer into focus every day. In my case, it wasn’t slaying the enemy that concerned me as it was just outsmarting it — or at the very least, staying one step ahead.

My goal was to not allow cancer to dictate the present, even though it could certainly complicate my future. Here’s an example from my own experience.

My wife was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer 25 years ago. I was at the height of my career as a professional stage magician and about to embark on an 11-city tour in Japan. The tour would take a month. She had always been a co-star in my show, and the thought of not having her with me was disturbing to say the least.

But she was halfway through a vigorous and aggressive course of chemotherapy, and it was imperative that she have her infusions every two weeks. To make matters worse, her stamina was greatly reduced, and she had lost all her hair for the second time. It seemed like an impossible situation to overcome. We thought cancer had won in this case.

But then we had an idea. What if we outsmarted her cancer and found a way to make our trip abroad together? We put our heads together with her oncologist and suggested that we might find a way have her chemotherapy administered in Japan at one of their hospitals.

“Impossible!” was the word we began to hear. But we believed otherwise, and eventually convinced her doctors to order all the drugs, tubing, instructions and other gear, and pack it all up to take in our carry-on luggage. We found a physician in Japan who was a friend with one of our medical team and set up a day halfway through our tour to meet at a specific hospital for her infusion.

Then we found her a good wig and worked up a routine that was to be our “show closer.” What we created was an illusion whereby she sat in the auditorium pretending to be an audience member and was chosen by me, seemingly at random, and brought to the stage. After some fun gags, I pulled a small curtain around us, and in just three seconds, our costumes were changed so that she was now wearing my outfit and I was dressed in hers. It was a stunning illusion, and she played the part perfectly, never missing a performance.

We often spoke of that tour as a highlight of our careers and indeed, our lives together — despite cancer tagging along for the ride.

I believe that I have an opportunity to outsmart my cancer every day, mostly by just remaining grateful to have a little more time and by not giving in to the fear and distraction that my disease can manifest. Granted, it’s not always easy, but I won’t give cancer the upper hand in how I spend my day. The time to take action, to regroup and do all I can to stop my breast cancer from spreading is ongoing.

Of course, the fact remains that someday in my future there will come a time to die, regardless of the role cancer plays. But the time to live is now.


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