This guest blog is an excerpt from the ending of BALL & Other Funny Stories About Cancer, a 70-minute stage performance by Brian Lobel about illness and the changing body over time originally produced in 2003.
This is one of several posts leading up to our day-long Performing Medicine Festival on April 5, 2014, which will explore the interrelationships of medicine, health, and the performing arts. Brian Lobel will perform this and four other monologues at the event. Register for the festival here.
By Brian Lobel
But what do I win? Lance Armstrong got the Tour De France, speaking gigs, and a ghost writer named Sally Jenkins (who I’m pretty sure never had testicular cancer), everyone else gets all this wisdom and depth that only derive from cancer, and what do I get? If I wasn’t going to become a better person because of all of those procedures then I sure as hell better win some kind of competition.
Competition. I need to be a hero. A role model. A SURVIVOR! I was actually considering sports, which I hadn’t done since my leg surgery in fourth grade. And, P.S., I still hate sports. I still hate to compete. Maybe ballroom dancing. Yeah, ballroom dance is going to become an Olympic sport. I dance. I have nice posture. Ooh, cancer survivor turned Olympic gold medalist —that would definitely make the ticker on CNN. Cancer survivor turned Olympic gold medalist—hah, not even Lance Armstrong has an Olympic gold medal! You can’t just survive cancer anymore. I know that I will never be the best role model or ideal survivor—but I will die trying.
July 1, 2002. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Hospital Stem Cell Transplant Reunion Picnic. For all of my doctors and nurses a chance to reflect, to reunite with their former patients, and to share in the blessings of life, family, and community. I was three days finished with my stem-cell transplantation process and ready to kick some ass. The day was bright and sunny—as saccharine-sweet and sentimental as the day any cancer-survivor picnic should be. We all gathered in the park—about five miles from the Indianapolis Speedway—and we celebrated. We celebrated living.
The Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Hospital Stem Cell Transplant Reunion Picnic Hula Hoop Contest. For the kids. Eight un-ironic, cute little daughters of stem-cell transplant patients (who I’m sure were once upon a time frozen at International Cryogenics Incorporated) versus Brian Lobel, the world’s most competitive cancer survivor. A race to the finish, a fight to the death. Winner take all: a Coleman folding lawn chair. They were nothing. The world needed to see who the real cancer survivor turned hula hoop champion was…and so, I hula-d.
If it was a title that Lance Armstrong would never hold, I would hold it, and so I focused, intensely, passionately.
My hips began to twirl on their own and my mind began to flash back over the last eight months…boring, endless, depressing, near defeating…The support, the love, the compassion… The hundreds of people who didn’t make mention in this cancer story because they were beautiful, and perfect, and caring, and kind.
Most of the crap I hate about cancer is story after story after story about people supporting and loving each other with cancer. But I think that’s because, to me, it all seems so obvious. But I do feel indebted to those people. Even those people who said obscene things to me like “But thank God you have a good cancer” or “Your spirit will get you through it,” had enough love in their hearts to attempt to connect with me because they cared. Regardless of the messed up way they demonstrated their compassion. They supported me enough so that I could survive cancer and write a story about balls, tubes, and masturbation. I’m sure they’re proud. I thought of my parents, my family, my doctors, and my cohort in struggle. If there were words to describe them or the love I feel towards them, I would share those words with you. Everyone should experience even a little bit of that love in their life…
FOCUS BRIAN. DAMMIT. Don’t give in to that mushy, sentimental bull. You’ve got a match to win. The DJ spoke over the microphone. “OK girls, um, and boy. You’re doing great out there. Now it’s time to take a big step to your right.” DON’T FALL BRIAN. STAY UP, STAY FOCUSED. Four girls lost their hula hoops when they stepped to the right, but mine stayed snugly around my hips…and again my mind began to wander…
Eight months. Gone. Like that. One day, I was studying and living and dancing and hugging and experiencing, and then cancer. The path back to normalcy would be a long and tedious one. I could see years into the future and see how my scars still haunt me, how the smell of saline still reminds me of the hospital, and how people consistently wonder at my healthy appearance and comment, “You look so good, Brian,” thereby never allowing me to forget how sick I really was, and how much everyone around me worried.
“Are you training for the Tour de France?” “How’s the cycling going?” “Hey Brian, where’s your bike?!” Actual jokes, challenges…Well, what was I going to accomplish with my new lease on life? I felt the need to compete, to succeed, and to become this ideal cancer survivor that gets so so so much wisdom. Take my wisdom! Just give me eight months back! I want to be able to walk down the street without thinking Oh, don’t die now, Brian, that would be really uninspiring to everyone, and I want to be able to look at a pimple on my body and not think it’s a melanoma. I did not realize this was a life sentence.
BRIAN. BRIAN. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? FOCUS!!!
Another girl down, and then there were three. I looked into their devil eyes, and saw straight into their struggle-free life. Ooh, how nice. How cute. As I instilled the fear of God into their eyes, their hula hoops soon followed suit and fell with perfect synchronicity. And then there was one. “OK you two…now let’s see you clap those hands.”
WIN. CLAP. CLAP. WIN. CLAP.
WIN BRIAN. CLAP. WIN. CLAP. WIN. And then it happened. I let go. Not of my hula hoop, which was still twirling with ease around my body, but of my drive to be something I wasn’t. I wasn’t someone who would let my life be defined by my illness. If cancer didn’t define who I was, then the pressure of Lance Armstrong-like success or masculinity would never even apply. I would never be Lance Armstrong. I would never be an athlete or a competitor, or an inspirational speaker. I would just be me. And that was, surprisingly, OK. It’s weird, as soon as I let go, my life became simpler, less complicated somehow. I was going to live for me, for Brian Lobel as I really was—quirky, awkward, unathletic, unmasculine, sexy-as-hell One-Ball Lobel—and I was happy.
And it fell. My hula hoop fell. What? That wasn’t supposed to happen. I was supposed to be victorious. I was supposed to learn to love myself and to learn that winning doesn’t matter, and then I was supposed to win anyway. That’s how it ends, right? I don’t win and I don’t die? What? I competed, I tried, and I failed. And I guess that’s me.
I sulked back, completely unsettled, to the picnic table. Where would I go from here? Where does anyone go from here? The DJ came over to whisper something in my ear. The little girl who won the hula hoop contest didn’t clap her hands, and was disqualified. I won. (The news sets in slowly.) The eight-year-old girl who won the hula hoop contest forgot to clap her hands. I won. That cheating, lying, eight-year-old who stole the hula hoop championship from me forgot to clap her hands. And so, the 2002 Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Hospital Stem Cell Transplant Reunion Picnic Hula Hoop Championship was won by Brian Lobel, by default. And that’s good enough for me. I don’t know what’s better, beating cancer or beating an eight-year-old girl in a hula hoop contest.