A former Disney cast member and cancer survivor discovers a new meaning to these beloved lyrics.
“It’s a Small World” has long been a favorite attraction at Disneyland, despite its rather low-tech presentation. I have been drawn to the world of fantasy since childhood. During my early education at Walt Disney elementary school in Anaheim, California, I was introduced to a life where talking animals and magical fairies became the reality I believed in, and wishing upon a star was the secret to making dreams come true.
I didn’t know about cancer back then.
It was these early childhood experiences, though, that inspired me to become a fulltime magician for four decades of my life. And boy was it fun.
As a kid, the world seemed very large to me, and it was filled with unparalleled opportunities for health and happiness. It appeared to be a happy place, since my limited experiences with the harshness of a planet in turmoil were beyond my scope of understanding.
Fast forward 60 years. It took that long for me to discover that breast cancer occurs in men. And more importantly, it took that long for breast cancer to show up in my own body.
I had a younger sister who had been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer and a father and brother with prostate cancer (I missed those important clues with regard to my own future), so when I was told I had male breast cancer in 2014, the world suddenly became a very small place indeed.
The problem with so-called “orphan diseases” isn’t simply the fact that little attention and effort is paid to research, or that many physicians still fail to check men’s breasts for cancer, or offer advice for self-exams. The problem is that it really is “a small world after all.” Guys with breast cancer are still struggling to bring this rare disease into the arena of common knowledge.
Walt Disney died of lung cancer at the age of 66. He smoked three packs of cigarettes daily.
I love everything about Disney. I’m speaking of the man and not the corporation. I had the chance to work for Walt for a number of years. That song, by the way, “It’s a Small World After All”, was written by the Sherman brothers who composed for Disney regularly, writing many of the catchy tunes that went along with the Disney movies.
I met Richard Sherman at an event long ago and he “apologized” to the world, with sly grin, for writing that incessant jingle that has stuck in the minds of millions of people over the years.
If only the news of male breast cancer could resonate like that. I guess it needs to have its own song.
Ironically, when the Disney attraction called “It’s a Small World” was designed and had its debut at the 1964 New York World's Fair before being installed at the Disneyland theme park, it was all about a world where people celebrated their differences by coming together in song. The “small world” they sang about was a place where boundaries and misunderstandings vanished, and children joyfully joined hands in a salute to our formidable human spirit. The world was shrinking because of our willingness to share it with our fellow humans; not because life’s tragedies were closing in on us.
Being a guy who still loves fantasy and happy endings, I choose to use that more positive connotation of a small world from which to see my breast cancer. And not because it’s make-believe, but because I really do think it’s true. The guys who harbor this unlikely disease are linking together in a unified and empowering expansion with the intention of creating hope, a cure and a good amount of public education.
Male breast cancer may be represented by small numbers (about 2,400 guys will be diagnosed this year in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society) but we remain undaunted by our invisibility. We are a group of men intent upon sharing the reality of this unfortunate disease while spreading knowledge and optimism for every man that follows in our footsteps.
And perhaps, doing a world of good.