Comedian Robert Schimmel has had his share of life's challenges: twice divorced and the death of his 11-year old son. Then, at age 50, and just months after landing a lucrative television sitcom, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Cancer on $5 a Day chronicles his journey to understand, confront, and ultimately conquer his illness.
Written with co-author Alan Eisenstock, the book begins with Schimmel in the hospital, his parents and ex-wife at hand, awaiting the results of diagnostic tests. When he learns that he has "the big-C," Schimmel is at a loss to stay grounded, anticipates his demise, but with time, realizes he's up for the fight: "I'm gonna keep making people laugh even if I have to stand at the microphone with a quill of IVs poking out of me." In subsequent chapters, and with refreshing candor, he details his victories and set-backs.
Schimmel approached his treatment with conviction. Recovery became his purpose in life, accepting the support of family and friends, and following fastidiously the advice of physicians. He experienced the ravages of chemotherapy, lost excessive weight, endured excruciating pain, and had to watch constantly for potentially life-threatening infections. Beyond the typical course of treatment, he sought out acupuncture, meditation, visualization, and crystal therapy! His account of these travails is both hilarious and poignant.
True to its title, the book abounds with humor. With the backdrop of chemotherapy-induced hair loss, Schimmel tells the one-of-a-kind account of speaking with a wig salesman who offers hair substitutes for other areas of the body now otherwise compromised. His description of having one of his testicles removed and replaced with a prosthetic sphere is laugh out loud funny. And when he writes about a short walk to and from his mailbox as the highlight of his day, it brings laughter born of wisdom: "Slow is the speed at which we should live--always." Note that much of the humor in the book is sexually charged and though not offensive, is clearly the domain of mature audiences.
The book ends with Schimmel 5 years cancer-free, happily married, and the father of two young children. Writing his story must have been a self-therapy, enabling him to re-think priorities and plot the future with previously unattainable insight. I'm sure the laughter he created along the way strengthened his resolve and lightened the load, however briefly, for many patients he saw on a daily basis. His is an inspired story that surely, will bring a smile to your face.
© 2008 James K. Luiselli
James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA is a psychologist affiliated with May Institute and a private practice clinician. Among his publications are 6 books and more than 200 journal articles. He reviews books for The New England Psychologist.