Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How Cancer Made Me A Better Writer

The original version of my first book, "Hope Begins in the Dark"
It’s weird, but I do not remember being bald. I know, I lost every hair on my head while undergoing chemotherapy for stage IV cancer. But I don’t recall ever looking in the mirror and seeing a bald guy. I must have just blocked it out. 

What I do recall is sitting in that cold chemo infusion room, shaking and scared shitless. And I remember my ghoulish chemo nurse, who took demonstrable pleasure in seeing me and my fellow chemo guinea pigs suffer. 

A dismal, humorless Eastern European woman, she had no business working in the medical profession or in any profession that involved interaction with sick, vulnerable humans. 

I'm not exaggerating. She was pure evil. I recall her Cruella de Vil half-smile as she administered the slow drip of that vile red liquid, the most toxic drug in the cocktail of meds they gave me to kill my cancer. It totally creeped me out the way she so gleefully put that nasty liquid into my veins.

Thankfully, most of the nurses and doctors with whom I've dealt during my 18-year cancer journey have been just fine. But when you get a bad one, it shakes your world. 

Like most people, I guess, I was a deer in the headlights when I was first diagnosed with cancer. I was 35 years old, very healthy, successful, engaged to the girl of my dreams, and living on the beach. I had the world by the tail. Or so I thought. Then suddenly someone in a white lab coat is telling me I have an incurable type of cancer and that I may die just because of a stupid little lump on my neck. 

I was petrified. But that frightened buck was soon replaced by a very different kind of animal. One with passion, strength and resolve. I was not going to let my diagnosis, or that nasty nurse, destroy my spirit. I remained hopeful and optimistic. And I took charge of my own healthcare. 

During my chemo, I conducted as best I could a pre-Google search for a book about lymphoma survivors who’d been through this darkness and made it to the other side. I desperately wanted to read about their strategies for survival, their treatment options, diet, supplement choices and how lymphoma had changed them as people. But sadly that book didn’t exist. 

Time to Preach From the Bully Pulpit

A few years after my initial chemo and after my subsequent clinical trial with an experimental radio-immunotherapy treatment gave me a second remission, I realized that if I wasn't going to write that book for and about lymphoma survivors, no one would. I knew that as a journalist I had a bully pulpit, and I thought to myself, "It looks like I’m going to be here a while after all. It’s time I start giving something back to my fellow cancer patients. It's time I did something to make a real difference in their lives."

When you face death, and more specifically when you beat death, your priorities change. Everything changes. As a journalist, I'd had several opportunities over the years to write a book. I've covered dozens of stories that would have made interesting books. Topics ranged from war to politics to sports to popular music. I even had a New York book agent. But I never stopped being a journalist long enough to propose any of those books, let alone write them. I loved my day job too much. 

But I knew what I had to do. I was ready now to become a real writer, as they say. Yes, I know, journalists are of course real writers. But there's just something about being a published author that makes you feel like you've entered a rather exclusive club. And this was an important book that countless people told me I was supposed to write. A calling, some said. I just knew it was something I had to do.

Still, I knew it would not be easy. Unlike a story in a magazine or newspaper, a book is a more daunting proposition. But I jumped in, head first. I just went for it. The book's working title was Hope Begins in the Dark: Lymphoma Survivors Tell Their Exclusive Life Stories. I wasn't sure if that title would stick. But it did. Through several editions.

I approached that first book project as if each of the chapters was an individual feature story. That made it a little less intimidating and a little more familiar for me. I had met literally thousands of lymphoma patients since I was diagnosed. But for the book I tried to narrow it down to the best cross-section of survivors representing a range of Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma types and a wide range of treatments. 

I recruited celebrities, seniors, kids, authors, homemakers, doctors, comedians, farmers, soldiers, athletes, CEOs, teachers. They are all happy to share their story in the hope that it would inform and inspire someone who had just been diagnosed. I think that sharing their stories helped the survivors I profiled nearly as much as it hopefully helps people who read the book. I know it has helped me profoundly.

In the book, I also share my own cancer experience. And that has been cathartic. Not that it’s ever been difficult for me to discuss my story in public. I’ll talk about my cancer to strangers in elevators! I want the world to know that I am winning this fight and that you can, too.

With the publication of the first edition of Hope, I set out to encourage cancer patients to be involved and fully informed. You have to become your own best advocate, even if you love your doctor. And especially if you don't. You have to explore and consider all of your treatment options, and take charge of your own healthcare and your own life. 

And you have to be pushy, at times. That’s a common thread among survivors I’ve met. They’re not angry, but they fight. They don't take any crap. They ask questions and do their own research. They take in all of the information not just from their doctors but from a variety of sources, and then make their own decisions. Sometimes it's hard, especially if you are really sick. It can be overwhelming. But your life is worth fighting for.

When I finally finished the first book, I felt an amazing sense of accomplishment. As a reporter I’ve covered everything from 9/11 to the war in Iraq to presidential elections, but anything and everything I write that has to do with cancer that potentially helps patients and their families now ranks at the top of the list in terms of what I think is most important.

That first book and its subsequent editions have been read by tens of thousands of cancer patients and their loved ones around the world. 

The newest editions of the Hope book include a foreword by Michael Werner, a CEO and family man from Chicago who also happens to be a director of the Lymphoma Research Foundation. Michael is a lymphoma survivor and a fine writer and dynamic leader in the nationwide lymphoma community. He is determined to find a cure for this disease. Michael is also a guy to whom I sometimes turn for inspiration, guidance and friendship.

An All-New Edition of Hope 

Because of the Hope books, I now get between 10 to 15 emails a day from lymphoma patients and their loved ones all over the world. It’s more gratifying than I can express in words. 

And now I've begun a brand new journey. I've begun to write an all-new edition of Hope Begins in the Dark that will include stories of lymphoma patients who have embraced an entirely new generation of treatments that did not exist when I was diagnosed. 

This is a very exciting time for lymphoma research. There are many new treatments now available -- some FDA-approved, others still in clinical trials. My new edition of Hope will reflect all of that.

This new edition is by far our most ambitious to date. I am just about to get started. And I am eager to show it to you when it is finished.

Since I was diagnosed with cancer, I've proudly become an advocate for cancer patients and their families. It's a responsibility I take seriously and welcome. Still, there are admittedly times when I want to just walk away from the cancer thing completely. 

I don’t want to think about the ‘C’ word every day. I don’t always want to think of myself as a cancer survivor. Sometimes I just want to live my life and not think about it. Sometimes I just want to be.

But I'm so happy when I am able help another patient find the right treatment and/or the right mindset to negotiate the maze.

And for the record, I am still a cancer patient. I have cancer in my abdomen. Yes, currently. There are several small lymph nodes in there, which technically means I am no longer in remission. But since those lymph nodes were discovered more than three years ago in a CT scan during an ER visit for something unrelated to cancer, they have not grown. At all. And I have had no lymphoma symptoms. 

So life is good. I am in what we call watch and wait. Or watchful waiting. Or waitful watching? 

Whatever. If my cancer does start to grow and spread, and I start feeling other symptoms, it will be back in the front of my mind again and I’ll deal with it. Probably with any one of those many new lymphoma treatments I mentioned above.

Meantime, I'm living my life as normally and joyfully as I possibly can. The fear that my cancer could flare up is not something I think about every minute of every day. But I still feel my neck for lumps every morning. I instinctively put my hand under my chin and feel for lymph nodes. But I don’t think about cancer 24-7. I just can’t. 

There are activities during which I don’t think about cancer at all, like when I see a movie or watch my daughter play on her high school tennis team. But the fear is always there on a subconscious level. And it certainly has had an impact on my family.

My daughter has always lived with the possibility that her Dad could get sick again. I tell her she’s a big part of the reason why I’m still alive and why I’ll always fight cancer with every ounce of strength I have. We’ve talked at length about what it means to live every day to the fullest, to enjoy life and really appreciate the gifts we have been given. 

Snowman on the Pitcher's Mound

My daughter is the inspiration for my other book, a novel called Snowman on the Pitcher’s Mound, which is based largely on conversations she and I have had. Kids are often the forgotten victims when a young parent gets cancer. They are sometimes unfairly neglected. They are scared, too, and confused, but a sick parent isn't always there to help them in the way a parent would if he or she were healthy. 

When an adult is diagnosed with cancer, he or she often reverts to feeling helpless and vulnerable, like a child. It is a daily challenge to be a good father or mother when you are sick and facing your own mortality.

Snowman on the Pitcher's Mound tells the life story of Tyler Paulson, a 10-year-old boy whose young mom is diagnosed with cancer. The story is told in the boy's voice. The book is not a downer at all. It is very positive and, I hope, funny and entertaining. But it does deal with an obviously serious topic.

Snowman is part of a forthcoming national program that helps kids when a parent or loved one is diagnosed with cancer. I’m hoping it will help, inspire and inform families that are coping with cancer. Both the kids and their parents.

My daughter and I used to read together every night before bed, and I asked her if she wanted to read Snowman after I finished writing the book, and she said yes. She read it to my wife and me. It was an emotional but very positive experience for all of us. She doesn't talk about it much, but I think and hope that she understood why I wrote the book.

Today when I look in the mirror, I see the same person I always have. But every morning when I wake up there’s a moment in which I get a little butterfly in my stomach, a split second in which my brain reminds my heart that I’m a cancer survivor. And when that happens I just can’t help but smile. 

I look back on my cancer journey, which began 18 years ago this month, and just shake my head. I remember so many highs and lows. But mostly I just remember the people who have been there for me. My family. My friends. And my fellow survivors. I remember you all. But I still can't remember being bald. I guess there are some things you just don't want to remember. Believe me: a little bit of denial is an important weapon in every cancer patient's arsenal.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Concert Review: Is David Crosby God?

 David Crosby performing in San Diego - Photo by Jamie Reno
On a cool, breezy evening in downtown San Diego last week, I saw God. Well, not God, exactly. But something comfortingly similar to what you might imagine God looks and sounds like. Watching 73-year-old rock legend and survivor David Crosby perform a high-energy set with his old mates Stephen Stills and Graham Nash was an almost spiritual experience. 

A grandfatherly figure now with a glowing silver mane and trimmer physique, Crosby has a calming presence about him, a wisdom. And a likability. It was uplifting to hear him chat it up so warmly, eloquently and hilariously with the adoring crowd between songs. 

Crosby, who given his documented life of excess really should be a ghost by now, was once considered too arrogant and too toxic to work with. But the old sailor has acquired a boatload of zen and goodwill. He had the audience, including me, in the palm of his hands.

Even Crosby probably wonders how the hell he made it through so many self-destructive episodes when so many of his rock & roll friends didn't. He's clearly enjoying his lucky long ride. But not in an obnoxious or narcissistic way. He's just thankful for his life. 

It's hard to believe this is the same guy who used to piss off just about everyone in his path. The same guy who was fired from The Byrds. But that's what happens when you combine a large dose of natural hubris, which Crosby owns, still, with unnatural things such as drugs, money and fame. 

Towards the end of the so-called Summer of Love in 1967, most young California musicians were still strumming their acoustics, tripping on 'shrooms and waving peace signs around. But that summer became a full-on bummer for Crosby when his fellow Byrds kicked him out of the nest. 

Crosby was canned from the pioneering and popular country-rock outfit mostly because of his mouth. He just never knew when to shut it. He was at times abrasive and relished controversy. He seemed to like making people feel uncomfortable. It was his way or the highway. That, too, is rather God-like, come to think of it.

Stills (left), Nash and Crosby rocking San Diego - Photo by Jamie Reno
Crosby wasn't evil, but by many accounts he was insufferable. An in-your-face cat, especially when it came to music, or politics, he was egomaniacal and relentless. He alienated many people who came into contact with him, even his erstwhile allies. 

At one point Nash was just about the only person who'd even speak to Crosby, who admits now that he used to treat women terribly. He once bailed in the middle of a recording session with Nash when his hash pipe broke. Crosby was a hardcore junkie who burned most of his bridges. No one denied his musical genius, or even his charm, when he summoned it, but he was on a downward spiral from which virtually no one thought he'd escape. And sadly many didn't care.

But Crosby did escape. He enjoyed the last laugh, both professionally and personally. People love him now. And while the influential Byrds are deservedly in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, their impact on the world hasn't been nearly as profound as the band Crosby would subsequently co-found.

You may already know the story behind the genesis of Crosby, Stills & Nash. After Crosby was fired by Byrds' frontman Roger McGuinn, he drifted for a bit, producing Joni Mitchell's first album and writing a love song for Jefferson Airplane. 

Stephen Stills (left) and Graham Nash jamming - Photo by Jamie Reno
But then he met up with brilliant singer-songwriter-guitarist Stephen Stills (left), fresh out of Buffalo Springfield, and they jammed together on Crosby's boat and came up with the timeless classic "Wooden Ships." 

Crosby then connected with equally gifted British singer-songwriter Graham Nash (left), who subsequently quit The Hollies, and the three of them formed a super group that actually lived up to that overused epithet. Their first jam together was in Joni Mitchell's house in Laurel Canyon. Their second was at Woodstock, where Stills told the enormous crowd that the band was "scared shitless." It didn't show.

CSN's music, mystique and enduring popularity have eclipsed those of any other band from the Woodstock generation. Neil Young would join up for the Woodstock performance and the band's second album, "Deja Vu," and weave in and out of the band for the subsequent four-plus decades. But the template, the core group, is CSN, of which Crosby has always been the most interesting member. Not always for good reasons. But always.

Maybe it's the music that has kept him alive. Crosby's songwriting is intensely personal, unique and melodic. His ambitious compositions, from "Deja Vu" to "Cowboy Movie" to "Laughing," are simultaneously ethereal and majestic. His songs can at once be pensive and kick-ass. It's a delicate balance few songwriters have attained.

In the sold-out concert, which took place at the plush, old-school San Diego Civic Theater, David, Stephen and Graham and their excellent backup band were all in peak form. The crowd was wildly enthusiastic. Everyone on the stage was stellar. But Crosby stole the show. 

David, whose sublime 1971 solo album "If I Could Only Remember My Name" is one of my favorite atmospheric, chill-out records ever, can just stand on the stage under a spotlight, silently if he wants, and crowds go nuts.

Kicking off with one of the group's best rockers, "Carry On," CSN had the mostly baby-boomer crowd on their aging feet. Stills' guitar work remains extraordinary and his increasingly raspy voice still manages to find itself, especially on the rockers. Graham's voice is still pristine.

The three of them continue to create a vocal and emotional magic on stage that few other bands can. It's still the perfect blend of three voices. No band in the rock era can boast three lead voices that mix and match so wonderfully. Of course the magic also comes from all those brilliantly crafted songs. But it's even more than that now. 

CSN tours have evolved into poignant, bittersweet, rocking revivals. There is a heap of nostalgia, naturally, but they don't seem like oldies shows. Each member brings new songs, good ones, and each guy talks to the audience about what's happening today as well as what happened back in the 60s. But a CSN concert in 2014 is an undeniably happy reminder of what this music and what the 60s really meant to people, especially boomers. 

I was only eight when CSN's first album came out, but I listened to it incessantly. I was a young musician and had hip, music-loving parents and older sibs who made sure I heard all the good music of the era. As I watched David perform his epic "Long Time Gone," which he sang with such fervor, I wondered how many of the people in the crowd that night must have listened to this song in their dorm rooms, attended anti-war protests on campus, graduated from college, grew up, settled down and then just sort of lost touch with the lofty ideals of their youth.

When Crosby and Nash teamed up for "Guinevere," the masterpiece of two-part harmony that Crosby wrote in 1969, I was mesmerized. The song is stunning. It is musical perfection. And they still nail it.

Crosby told Rolling Stone years ago that the song was about "three women that I loved. One of who was Christine Hinton, the girl who got killed who was my girlfriend, and one of who was Joni Mitchell and the other one is somebody that I can't tell. It might be my best song."  

Yes, it might be. Crosby also introduced a newer song, "What Makes it So," and it was a highlight, especially for how cool and strange some of the chord progressions are. I know of very few other songwriting guitarists other than maybe John Mayer who throw more bizarre, even unrecognizable chords into his compositions than Crosby. 

It was nice to see David and Stephen smiling broadly while jamming together on guitars at one point. The two of them have had more than their share of head-butting battles over the years. They've made peace. They probably don't even remember what most of the arguments were about. Except, perhaps, the ones over women.

David Crosby solo performance in San Diego, 1986
Crosby's life has obviously been volatile and crazy even for rock-star standards. He's consumed a ton of drugs and booze, he had a liver transplant, and he went to prison in Texas for nearly a year on drug and gun offenses. He's been arrested a bunch of times for drugs and guns. 

I saw David right after he got out of prison in a sold-out solo show in 1986 at a small club in San Diego (that's where the black and white picture above was taken). He was funny that night, but still defiant about the jail time and about his need for weapons. David isn't always the knee-jerk, politically correct liberal some think. He's a gun enthusiast and has also been openly critical of Muslims and Arabs.

A diabetic who has had heart problems and fought a long battle with Hepatitis C, Crosby has repeatedly cheated death. Yet, impossibly, he's singing better than ever. Crosby is so well known for writing soft, trippy songs that he's never gotten enough credit for the power of his voice. He's a phenomenal singer. When he sang "Almost Cut My Hair," his bluesy hippie-rebel anthem, he brought the freaking house down. 

Mind you, Crosby is still outspoken, politically and otherwise. He still gets pissed off when he encounters injustice. He will never be a wallflower. But he's clean, mostly sober (he still smokes pot now and then), and obviously happy. He's come to terms with his demons and has apologized to as many people as he can find who he may have mistreated back in the day. 

Even former enemy McGuinn and Crosby have buried the hatchet. But the mercurial McGuinn stubbornly tells Crosby over and over that he has no interest in a Byrds' reunion -- even though this year is the 50-year anniversary of that band. Crosby has said that he's all in if McGuinn ever agreed. But he won't.

Suffice to say, David Crosby beat the odds. He was given a second act, and it's a hit. I wish it could last forever. Maybe it will. Crosby is evidently indestructible. Maybe he really is God. He told Rolling Stone recently, "I don't know why I'm alive and Jimi and Janis isn't and Mama Cass isn't and all my other friends. I have no idea why me, but I got lucky."

Yes, David, you got lucky. Very lucky. And so did we.