Michael Solomon was hit by a huge double whammy: Cancer and a divorce at pretty much the same time. It’s like he was given the list of Life Stressors, and checked off the top few boxes. But Solomon, an award-winning documentary film producer, was able to find the funny in it all, even when things weren’t so funny. And yet, he also found the profound, saying “Our fear of death is a fear of the loneliness of going wherever we go by ourselves.” He’s written about cancer, divorce and raising his son, Luke, now 17, during the whole mess in his book, “Now it’s Funny.” Parenting with Cancer asked him to share, share, because like the kids say, that’s fair:
Parenting with Cancer: In your book, you say the cancer you were originally diagnosed with is almost always associated with cigarette smoking, saying, “This is what it must feel like when you’ve killed someone and you first sense the irreversibility of what you’ve done,” How did people make you feel when they found out you’re an ex-smoker with lung cancer?
“When your life is upside down there’s no point lamenting gravity.”
Michael Solomon: As it turned out, I didn’t have lung cancer. My final diagnosis was non-Hodgkins MALT lymphoma which first presented (i.e. appeared) on my lung. Still, that did little to dispel the intense remorse I felt about having smoked for 20 years. No one ever said anything to my face about smoking being the cause of my cancer, though I’m sure they thought it. I know I did! All smokers feel some measure of guilt, whether they admit it to themselves or not. What made things even more complex for me emotionally was that my diagnosis came six years after I’d already quit smoking. I thought the statute of limitations had run out on my crime! Evidently, I was wrong.
As with many choices one makes in life, it’s easy to be your own judge, jury and executioner, and when I got my initial diagnosis, I could feel myself putting on the powdered white wig and the long black robe. But I decided to forgive myself because there wasn’t much I could do about it anymore.
When your life is upside down there’s no point lamenting gravity.
Parenting with Cancer: You wrote in your book that when you were diagnosed with lung cancer, you did the math and figured, best-case scenario, you could live until your son Luke would be 19. What did it feel like to face the reality that you might not see Luke to adulthood?
Michael: It was unthinkable. Too sad for me to even imagine. And yet that’s what the math seemed to indicate. It felt like someone had made a terrible mistake. How could this be happening to me, or worse, why should Luke have to lose his father at such a young age? I remember feeling as if I was racing in a car without any brakes, zooming past all the milestones of my son’s life I was sure to miss.
Parenting with Cancer: You write about the difficulty of explaining cancer to children: “Tell them that someday we all must die and they envision a day in the not-too-distant future when everyone will be dead…including them.” How did you tell your son Luke, then six, that you had cancer?
Michael: Lucky for me my marriage was falling apart at the same time that I was dealing with cancer. Just kidding. But only sort of, because my ex-wife and I were in couples’ therapy, and during one session, when there was a break in the he-said/she-said about who needed to change in order to save our marriage, I mentioned to the therapist that I also didn’t know what to say to my son about having cancer. Her advice was, “Be honest. Be brief. Keep it simple. And then propose doing something he likes.” It was excellent advice, not to mention some small consolation for all the money I was spending in therapy trying to save my marriage (it ended in divorce).
So I waited to tell Luke until four days before I was to go for my surgery, and then I tried to keep it as un-dramatic as possible, figuring the less drama, the less chance of my inadvertently scaring him. I told him I had to go to the hospital for a few days but I’d be back quickly. When he asked why, I said that I had something called a lesion, which the doctor was going to take out (technically true). I said I didn’t know how I got the lesion but I wasn’t worried because the doctor said she could fix me up. Then I told Luke that he could come visit me in the hospital if he wanted, only not the first day because those are the rules. Then I said: “Let’s go get some ice cream.” And we did.
Parenting with Cancer: You chose not to use the word, “cancer.” Why?
Michael: Sadly there’s a lot of cancer out there, and it comes in many shapes and sizes. I knew Luke would inevitably hear about cancer elsewhere, particularly if he mentioned to grown-ups that his Dad had it, and sooner or later someone would unthinkingly mention a person they knew or heard about who had died of cancer, or perhaps he’d hear about a celebrity who had died of cancer on TV. My concern was that when he heard this he would conclude, “Therefore, if my Dad has cancer, he is going to die.” Remember, he was only six at the time. Why terrify him needlessly? Lesions kill people, but no one but a doctor would ever declare it a cause of death. And since I was hoping not to die from the lesion or cancer, I elected to use the word least likely to come up in a morbid context in adult conversation or on the evening news. If you tell a child you have to go to the hospital for something, they already know it’s something serious. How much more detail do they really need to process what’s going on? I mean, there was a chance I might die from surgical error. Was it “dishonest” not to alert my six year-old to this too, and every other possible pitfall of cancer and major surgery? I don’t think so. I told him if he had any questions he could ask me whenever he wanted.
“I also didn’t know what to say to my son about having cancer. Her advice was, ‘Be honest. Be brief. Keep it simple. And then propose doing something he likes’.”
Parenting with Cancer: Your diagnosis was later changed to MALT lymphoma, which, you write, made you “immediately envision a chocolate malted in a thick, fluted glass.” It’s actually a form of slow-growing B-cell Non Hodgkin’s lymphoma. How did the change in diagnosis affect you mentally?
Michael: It’s funny to hear that your cancer is lazy. Actually, it’s a wonderful thing to hear, though at first I didn’t know what to make of my MALT diagnosis, and because I have a fertile imagination I often make strange mental associations, especially when I’m frightened. Also I think when you’re at your oncologist’s, it’s very tough to listen the way you normally do because you’re so terrified about what might come out of their mouth next. Fear has a way of making time slow down for me, and so when my oncologist spoke to me I’d find myself thinking: “Is she about to say ‘your prognosis looks good’ or is she about to say ‘I’m afraid I have bad news’. Wait! Her mouth appears to be forming a ‘y’ sound, and ‘y’ is the first letter in the word ‘your’ and…”
I call it listening defensively. Which is why, incidentally, I always advise people to bring someone with them to their appointments so they can verify afterwards what’s actually been said. But to answer your larger question, I just wanted my cancer to be as un-bad as possible. I wanted the kind of cancer that would find spreading through my body about as exciting as straightening bananas. “Oh never mind. What’s the point!” That’s the cancer I longed for, so the lazier the better.
“I just wanted my cancer to be as un-bad as possible.”
Parenting with Cancer: Give us the run-down of all the surgeries, etc. We like to hear about that stuff so we can understand what you’ve been through.
Michael: I had two surgeries to remove malignant tumors. One on my lung and one that was found on my small bowel six months after my first operation. I never even knew I had a small bowel till then. As cancer treatment goes, I consider myself fairly lucky in retrospect. But all cancer patients — and I make a rather big point of this in my book – all of us endure a litany of mental and physical tribulations that can’t help but transform us as people. Our sense of groundedness is uprooted, as though by an earthquake. Our mortality is brought to the fore by strangers in lab coats whom we must then entrust with our very survival. Modern and medieval-looking medical devices customarily ignore the one-way signs at the entrance to our bodily orifices. And what survives of our cherished dignity is often imperiled by badly-tailored hospital gowns (i.e. your naked behind is visible in the back).
Physically, you can’t undo your treatments. And psychologically, once the wool’s been pulled from your eyes about life and death, you can never really pull the wool back on. I think that combination changes you somehow.
Parenting with Cancer: What was the best advice someone gave you during treatments?
Michael: My dear friend said to me: “Mike, stop worrying about what’s wrong with you and just accept that something is wrong and you need to get it taken care of. We’ve got to put on bandannas and fight. Now, do you want the blue bandanna or the red one?” It helped me focus on what was important. I think where I may differ from other people about cancer treatment is that I feel that there’s a little bit of fighter and a little bit of coward in each of us, and those two parts can coexist even in a cancer battle. To me, courage is not fearlessness. Courage is finding a way to be brave even when you’re scared to death.
Parenting with Cancer: And the worst?
Michael: If your bungee cord breaks and you hit the river, swim right.
Parenting with Cancer: What role, if any, did cancer have in your divorce?
“Once the wool’s been pulled from your eyes about life and death, you can never really pull the wool back on.
Michael: When my ex and I finally decided to separate I went out and found a new apartment, but then a week before signing the lease, I received my second cancer diagnosis. So I had to ask myself if I still wanted to go ahead and separate even though, you know, I had cancer again and who knew where that would lead this time? Even though our relationship had been in tatters, my ex gave me some important support during my first cancer battle. I was undecided about leaving the comfort of the known for the unknown, and I wondered if I’d have the fortitude to face cancer and divorce at the same time. But in a strange way, I felt like that line in The Shawshank Redemption about how you have to either get busy living or get busy dying, so I elected to follow the path I’d chosen and just knew I’d have to tough it out and hope for the best. Winston Churchill had this great line about “if you feel like you’re going through Hell just keep going” and I guess I took it to heart.
Parenting with Cancer: How soon did your cancer recur? What is your status now?
Michael: My second diagnosis came six months after my first. Thankfully, it’s been my last one for going-on eleven years now. Also in the status department, I’m happily re-married and I have another wonderful son.
Parenting with Cancer: Anything you’d like to add?
Michael: My son Luke recently read my memoir, but I was nervous as hell about him reading it. Still, I was counting on his processing skills being much more mature at age 17 than they were at age six, and thankfully I was right. He was able to read about my cancer, my divorce, my sex life, and my past drug use, and just shake his head in a wise-for-his-years way and say: “Dad. It’s a really funny book, but seriously….OMG.”
Having your kid OMG you like that is a milestone truly worth living for.
Michael Solomon is the author of the acclaimed memoir “Now It’s Funny: How I Survived Cancer, Divorce and Other Looming Disasters.” He is also an award-winning documentary film producer, whose credits include “How To Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It),” about Melvin Van Peebles, and “Constantine’s Sword,” based on the book by James Carroll, which was a NY Times Critic’s Pick.
Michael is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. More information is available at his website www.nowitsfunny.com.