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Blinders Off

by Robert Schimmel

Filed under | Living With Cancer

Blinders Off
Image courtesy hiddevries.

In comedy, they say that timing is everything. Well, if’s that’s true, the spring of 2000 was Robert Schimmel time. I was on top of the world. I had a one-hour comedy special, a new CD, and a sitcom that had just been picked up for the fall television season. All the things I had worked so long to achieve in show business were coming true. But on June 2 of that year, just two days after my first appearance at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, I felt run-down and feverish. I went to my doctor, thinking it was the flu. My doctor found a small lump under my left arm and asked me how long it had been there. I told him I had no idea. I had never noticed the lump before. He scheduled a biopsy for later that day.

The following morning, a nurse escorted me to my doctor’s examination room and told me that he would be in to see me momentarily. A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. My doctor came in, followed by another doctor that I had never seen before. He introduced the other doctor and told me that he was going to be my oncologist.

Oncologist? Why did I need an oncologist? He gave me the good news/bad news speech. The bad news was that I had cancer. Cancer? My heart was pounding. I was dizzy. He told me that I had the “classic” textbook symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Why hadn’t I come in earlier?

Well, maybe they’re “classic” textbook symptoms for an oncologist, but not for a comedian. Then he told me that I had large b-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that I was either stage III or IV. The good news was that my type of cancer was aggressive. Aggressive? That’s the good news? That’s when my knees buckled. I almost passed out. What did he mean by aggressive? Was I going to make it out to the parking lot? Did I have time for a phone call? He explained that aggressive was good. Cancer cells are at their weakest when they are dividing. The faster the cancer cells were dividing in my body, the better the chances were of the treatment working.

Everything I’d worked for during the last twenty years was about to come to a screeching halt. I really didn’t think I’d see the light at the end of the tunnel.

When I walked into the infusion center for my first chemotherapy treatment, I was reminded of that poster “Evolution of Man,” except in reverse. I looked at myself in the mirror, saw how I looked that day, and then I looked at the people in the room and saw what I was going to become going through treatment. I found a seat next to this guy, Bill, who was also getting chemo. He was in his fifties, thin, hair falling out. I asked him how he was doing. “How does it look like I’m doing?” he said. “I’ve got cancer.” I tried to start a conversation with him; my nurse suggested I change seats – she said Bill had a negative attitude and that people like him dragged everybody down with them. Well, the comedian in me wasn’t about to give up; I had to get a laugh from him. I asked Bill if he had been to any support groups. He said no; he didn’t like listening to a bunch of sob stories. I said I’d gone to one the night before, to prepare for what I was facing. A woman there was upset because she thought her husband wouldn’t find her sexy once she started losing her hair. I told Bill that I looked at her and thought, “Sexy? Lady, if you think you’re sexy-looking now, maybe you need to get your eyes examined too.” Bill started to laugh. And that’s what I needed, to hear laughter. To know that it wasn’t over. That cancer couldn’t touch my sense of humor. It’s been said so many times it’s become a cliché, but laughter really is the best medicine. It’s what got me through all of my treatments, got me on the road to recovery.

On December 12, 2000, my doctors told me I was in remission. I was very grateful, of course. But what surprises people the most now is when I tell them that if I had a chance to go back to the day I was diagnosed and could change or stop that diagnosis, I wouldn’t. I’ve learned more about myself and about life and about what really matters in these past eight years than I did in the first fifty years of my life.

After I was diagnosed, I didn’t change my stand-up act. I like my act. It’s me. If anything, it’s only become better since I got cancer. I let it all out now. I talk about my chemotherapy. I show pictures of myself with no hair and at 128 pounds, when I was at my lowest point. I looked like a Holocaust victim, but it’s who I was. I was there, and here I am now. My message in my act is that a cancer diagnosis is not the last stop. I’ve always loved to make people laugh, but my thing now is also to instill hope.

I’ve suffered bouts of survivor’s guilt. I know how that feels now. Every single night someone in my audience will come up to me and tell me about a loved one who didn’t make it. It’s difficult. But I lost my son to cancer, so I know what it’s like. I’ve earned the right to talk about this stuff on stage. And when people hear this stuff, they appreciate it because they know what i’ve been through.

Cancer, as bad as it was, could not take away my sense of humor, faith, and who I was. I’ve always felt the best comedy comes from the truth. Cancer has in fact made me a better comedian and a better person. In a weird way, this cancer diagnosis was the first glimmer of light; it was the first step out of the darkness. For me, getting lymphoma was a gift. Before I was diagnosed, I truly did spend my life in the dark, like a horse wearing blinders. When I was diagnosed, the blinders came off. Now I’m basking in the light.


Comedian Robert Schimmel knows that his irreverent stand-up act, as funny as it is, is not for everyone. But his compassion is. Robert, a former winner of Best Male Stand-Up at the American Comedy Awards and one of Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Comics of all time, was diagnosed with stage III Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2000. Tragically, this was not his introduction to cancer. Eight years earlier, his son, Derek, had succumbed to brain cancer at age 11. Since he was diagnosed with lymphoma, Robert has become an outspoken advocate for lymphoma awareness. His stand-up act now includes a simultaneously uproarious and touching take on his cancer that elevates his comic craft to another level and strikes a deep chord with his audiences across the country. His highly acclaimed book “Cancer on $5 a Day (chemo not included)” tells the story of how humor got him through the toughest journey of his life.

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