In July, 2019, I was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. I then began a personal log on Facebook, sharing my thoughts and observations along the journey.
Over the weekend, I put on my old Tiger Schulmann's Red Bank karate T-shirt, traveled to MSK's Middletown clinic, and began my treatments to fight pancreatic cancer.
By the way, that's Fiona (just like Shrek, she was quick to point out) just one of the many amazing people I have already encountered at MSK. I'm blessed to have one of the country's best cancer centers only ten minutes from my house.
I know my diagnosis sounds scary, but fortunately, my medical team said my cancer mass is small and that I am an excellent candidate for new treatments that have shown success in shrinking tumors like mine.
My sense of humor remains intact. I did get a few knowledgable chuckles when I asked the medical team that put in a "port" in my chest to receive chemo if that means I can also now charge "tariffs" for Chinese medicine.
I feel good--both mentally and physically--and with the support of friends and family, I look forward to adding a new accomplishment to my resume--cancer survivor.
I'm simply overwhelmed by the response I have received on Facebook. Mindblowing in fact. The journey begins and it's nice to see so many people riding in the backseat. Just don't ask if we're there yet. :)
Sammi, my nurse practitioner, will deliver her first child later this month. No circle of life references, please. I already promised that I would be around when she returns from maternity leave. She concurred.
Today was my first follow-up visit after starting chemo. So far, the side effects haven't been too bad. A little nausea, but controllable by meds, and few more naps than usual, but no pain and remain in good spirits.
Appetite remains good, too. In fact, I am finding that MSK has very tasty Graham Crackers....
The lovely Georgia and Laura, who assisted me Saturday in receiving my second round of chemo, with the addition of a pretty nasty new drug that immediately made its presence known. Severe nausea all day, but I don’t blame the new medication. I blame my decision to have a smoothie in the morning that simply did not digest. Good lesson for me as we continue down this path. A lot of vomiting, but after shifting my diet to crackers and ginger tea (as well as ginger ale), I am feeling a little better.
As I have mentioned to friends, it’s my job to focus on the things I can control—-what I eat, how I exercise, getting the most of our every day, and maintaining a good mental attitude. Everything else isn’t worth worrying about. Except maybe worrying about losing my hair. :)
Oh, by the way, I wasn't going to let a little thing like a chemo treatment keep me away from supporting the Monmouth Film Festival and to participate in tonight's awards ceremony. Thanks to the Marcheses for asking me to co-host this event. It's always a blast. The action starts about 30 minutes into the video.
Meet Nino, my new friend from Georgia (the place the Beatles sang about in "Back in the USSR"), a very efficient nurse who managed my treatment today (including the anti-nausea drugs they forgot to include in the second round). Already feeling much better than the second round, which is a real positive. Let's see how the next couple of days go.
Last week was positive and energetic--going to concerts, taking an acting class, meeting old friends in New York. And then doing something truly daring--auditioning for a role I really wanted--cancer be damned.
So, today, Circle Players announced I have been cast in their production of "Seminar" as Leonard. Miraculous as that might be, I was floored when the director told me that he already knew I had cancer (after I shared that information with him). He didn't let my illness impact his casting decision.
It is refreshing to find people who focus on the positives and possibilities, and not dwell on the negatives or what might happen. I won't let cancer define me or what I do. Because that's the only way cancer can beat me.
As I was walking in NYC Wednesday, I saw a homeless man with a sign saying that he had pancreatic cancer and that he was terminal. So I asked him to tell me his story. He left his job, failed to sign up for health insurance, fell off a ladder and broke his back. While hospitalized, he learned he had cancer, which went into remission, and now it had returned. He expected to die in three months because he wasn't going to go back for treatment.
I was a little skeptical about his story. When I told him I had pancreatic cancer, the guilty look on his face gave away the lie. But it didn't matter. I gave him some money anyway and hopefully some advice that was more valuable. "You have a choice," I told him. "Choose life."
Round four begins with blood testing, and surprise, surprise, the lovely Lauren is on hand to access my port and get all those vital fluids. Considering the size of the MSG lab team, it is somewhat amazing that Lauren keeps getting my number, often drawing blood or disconnecting my empty bag from my port. I'm the lucky one. She's a real professional, and she's always inquisitive about how and what I'm doing. And she wants to see "Pets and Their Humans" at the First Avenue Theater (if someone would just pick up the phone. :)
The chemo is a basically scrambling my taste buds. Nothing tastes the same, so I'm wondering if this is finally the time to try liver.....
A good meeting with my doctor before chemo. He wants to conduct a follow-up screen in two weeks. He also said I look good, but then I still have more hair than he does.
Stay well. Enjoy the day.
Dr. Ilson is my oncologist here at Memorial Sloan Kettering, which means in simple terms, he’s the guy working to extend my life. He had some good news to share with me today. My latest scan shows that the pancreatic tumor has shrunk about 30 percent, and my malignant lesions in my liver are declining, too. Still a long road ahead, so best to stay even keel about this, but when you have doctor almost acting happier than you, than that’s probably the best sign of all.
Round six began on Thursday (sure sounds like a boxing match by now, doesn't?). Let me introduce you to two other members of the growing Sockol team, Melanie and Alvin, who was running the nursing operations on Thursday at MSK (he also handled my chemo two weeks ago). Even when I fell asleep in the chair, Melanie deftly switched medicine bags without waking me up.
They seemed pleased enough with my current health that they gave me a flu shot. And they are going to let my dentist clean my teeth. My red and white blood cells are putting up quite a fight. And my weight remains steady after 12 weeks of treatment.
Fitting that this round of chemo took place in the middle of the holiest week of the Jewish New Year, the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur when we pray for good health and a favorable spot on the Book of Life. This is the week God listens--not to who prays the loudest, but those who pray with sincerity and forgiveness. When my rabbi stopped by to deliver his wife's homemade honey bread (and a delicious gift indeed), I told him about my diagnosis, and he didn't skip a beat in his response--God only gives out challenges to those that can handle them.
So who am I to argue with God?
Okay, first don't get me wrong. Cancer sucks. No denying that. But there are plenty of ways to fight back. For example, for the last month and a half, I have made it a practice of going to the gym and working out on the days that I get chemo treatments. Today was round 7, so here I am beforehand, getting all those white and red blood cells pumped up for battle. Biceps, triceps, hip flexors, shoulders, and abdominal workouts followed by 20 to 30 minutes on the elliptical machine. Sadly, I can't do much with chest muscles, because I might accidentally move the port the surgeon put in there. But do have a pretty sexy scar ).
Chemo round 8 took place on Halloween. Luckily, no one chose to dress up like zombies, but my nurses Nicole and Megan did get into the spirit of the day. This latest round of chemo came during a perfect storm of demands on my time. I'm on the home stretch for two time-consuming activities--my re-election campaign for school board and my pending performance in "Seminar." On top of that, it has been a particularly busy time for work--three clients wanting stuff simultaneously. Nothing like writing a press release an hour after you get your chemo.
Cancer has been quite an adventure. For example, I failed my first urine test the other day, which I needed for a background check from a new client. Since the medical team at MSK has practically turned my body into a chemistry set, the outcome was no surprise. Still, it was a little fun to tell the worried inspector that I wasn't smoking marijuana but taking a drug that contained HTC to help with my appetite. A quick call to the pharmacist squared things up.
This is my new normal. Trying to balance the normalcy of work and play without letting cancer get in the way (the rhyme is accidental, but could still make a good song lyric). The best lesson from all of this--don't take the good days for granted. Make the most of them. And thanks everyone for your prayers and support. I don't say thanks enough.
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, so it's fitting that I would get my own personal awareness when I received my latest cancer scan this week. Before I share the results, let me also offer a few important data points. Almost every website out there will tell you that stage four pancreatic cancer is essentially incurable. Even today, the one-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is only 20%. Less than 10% of pancreatic cancer patients make it to five years. In fact, most pancreatic cancer patients die within six months after diagnosis.
Pretty sobering, huh.
I learned on Thursday that my pancreatic tumor has shrunk 75% since I began treatment five months ago (it is about the size of my thumbnail). The largest lesion in my liver is almost gone. Even the body language of my seasoned oncologist betrayed his giddiness. So, yes, you can say that Thanksgiving Day will have special meaning for me this year.
All of this must be taken with a grain of salt. There is a lot more fighting to do. But there is one blessing. I have really come to appreciate the "good" days when I feel almost normal again. Make sure you make the most of yours.
And show your real colors. Wear purple. Thanks.
Years ago, when I was training for my black belt, my Sensei, Jason Hoffman, who still remains one of the most influential people in my life, told the class that the things you value the most are the things you have to work the hardest to get.
Shortly after my diagnosis, I made a bet on myself. I knew the depressing statistics on survival rates and the long odds I faced. But I had circled (no pun intended) the date for Circle Players production of Seminar months before. I wanted to play Leonard, a true dream role, and much to my surprise, I was cast.
That was frankly a miracle, but even more miraculous has been the love and support that has been shown by the wonderful cast and crew, including Matt Lafargue(Director), Casey Okamoto (Stage Manager), Faith Dowgin (Producer), Kelly Kline, Megan Whitehead, Garrett John, and Michael McEntee.
I also want to also give a quick nod to my amazing friend and teacher, Jared Kelner, whose lessons (and passion) around acting have been an amazing influence as well.
Being both an actor and a trained martial artist has come in handy throughout the rehearsal process. For instance, our first tech day was particularly difficult, coming on the heels of my latest chemo treatment. Nauseous, dizzy, and physically exhausted, I still plowed through monologue after monologue, before slinking back home and crashing into bed for a three-hour nap.
Sometimes that's the price you pay to get something you really truly want. I'll be fine once the lights go up. Trust me.
Seminar's three-week run begins next week. Come and see it because you will be entertained. Or possibly, for those of you who have been following my posts, even inspired. :) Thanks.
Thanksgiving should be seen as a celebration of families and friends. But in recent months, I have found that definition to be a little limiting. I'm thankful for the researchers who spend countless hours seeking new cures for cancer. I'm thankful for my medical team and the progress they have made in my own case. I'm thankful for the remarkable support and prayers I have received these last few months from so many people.
Most of all, I'm thankful I'm here today to write this message.
On Black Friday, take a few moments to find peace and healing by joining my wife for her special yoga class dedicated to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer.
Happy Turkey Day everyone.
The tenth round of chemo today, completing almost a half year of treatment. To be honest, not a pleasant day, complete with vomiting and tingling fingers. But rather than tantalize everyone with more pictures of pretty nurses, I would rather focus instead on an unusual coincidence that will begin tragically, but hopefully will end on an optimistic note.
The man below is Alan Rickman, a brilliant actor who was diagnosed with Stage Four pancreatic cancer and died six months later in 2016. Here's the irony. Six months after my diagnosis, I'm playing "Leonard," the part Rickman originated during the original Broadway run of "Seminar." This Circle Players, Inc.'s production comes to an end this weekend up in Piscataway (get your tickets soon, ok?)
Just another sign of how much progress medical research has made in just the last few years.
As you fight through a cancer diagnosis, you remember all the patients who fought just as hard as you. Some make it. Some don't. Most of them worked very hard not to let cancer define their lives. Most of them are not as famous as Alan Rickman or Alex Trebek or Ruth Bader Ginsberg. But that doesn't mean they don't deserve to be remembered or honored.
My last three performances are dedicated to Alan Rickman (and others like him who left the world's "stage" too soon). Not because we share the same terrible disease, but because we both shared a similar joy for theater, and I feel an obligation to carry that spirit forward.
I hope you will join me and our marvelous cast and crew for what will be three very special and personal performances for me. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m and Sunday at 3 p.m.
Happy holidays, everyone. Feel free to share this note.:)
"You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live."
I remember the ESPY awards ceremony when Stuart Scott said those words. It was a gutsy way to look at how we all should face adversity.
The secret is to translate the words into action. One personal example takes place this weekend as I perform in the final three shows of Circle Players, Inc.'s production of "Seminar." Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm.
It will be a pretty special moment for me. I hope we can share it together.
A few days after my latest round of chemo last week (provided by the lovely duo of Jen and Laura), I had a chance to catch up with several of Lisa's cousins at a holiday gathering at her aunt's apartment in Greenwich Village. Robin is a cancer survivor, and she introduced me to two of her friends, who are cancer survivors themselves. Then they pointed to me, and said, "You're a cancer survivor, too."
Woah. Talk about crossing a medical Rubican. I recognize that I have made steady progress in my treatment. I generally feel pretty good (with a disclaimer that seems to delight my brothers--"for my age"), but unlike one of my old bosses, I don't delight in prematurely declaring victory. I will take my "wins" on a day to day basis for the time being.
But all this talk about being a survivor made me think a little a bit about what I have survived so far--adulthood, friendship, work, marriage, and parenting, just to name a few. Doing the practical and the necessary (working to pay my bills) while balancing an ongoing effort to challenge myself (the improbable, successful obtainment of a black belt in martial arts). Or maybe savoring moments of good fortune while deflecting the unfairness of life that seems to creep up when you least expect it.
In other words, life is not about surviving cancer or another disease. Life is about surviving life. With a new decade before us, being a "life survivor" would suit me just fine.
And why not some Jewish folk wisdom to start the new year, courtesy of a book my Mom is currently reading.
Of course, I might add one more--luck. I could have "everything" on this list, but unfortunately, pancreatic cancer doesn't have a sense of humor.
I began my first round of chemo of the year on January 2 (the first of three this month, but I couldn't sell MSK on the idea of a 3 for 2 special), and I can't look back at 2019 and not feel lucky and thankful:
So I chose to post this short video on Lou Gehring's final appearance at Yankee Stadium. When I was a baseball-fanatic pre-teen, I used to read everything I could find about the game, and when I read Lou Gehring's story I was confused. Why would a ballplayer still in his prime tell everyone he was the "luckiest man on the face of the earth" when he was about to die from a disease that bore his name?
Now, I understand. We should not need a "life-defining" event to take a moment to take stock of what we have accomplished in own lives or whose lives we have touched. Being lucky is doing the right thing as often as we can. Being lucky is about getting satisfaction from seizing opportunities or trying things that seem absurd or even dangerous. If that means creating a bucket list, that fine. But don't forget the simple things that come from being kind, empathetic, and patient with fellow human beings. Those are good things to base your resolutions on. Being lucky is part of living, which is probably why Gehrig closed his remarks by saying that he still "had a lot to live for."
I might add, so do I.
With much love, Happy New Year everyone.
Years ago, I watched a Twilight Zone episode ("A Matter of Minutes") in which a husband and wife fall out of sync with time. The story suggested that a small army of workers rebuilds every moment in time from scratch. Because they are now in "limbo" they are forced to join this work gang for eternity, but they manage to escape and "jump" back into the right time sequence and return to their normal life.
I love this allegory. Life should be viewed as a series of separate parts, knitted together, but individual in its own way, each component worthy of your time and attention. How many sequences to do we allow to slip away? Probably too many.
Our lives are being built, piece by piece, by an army of people, some visible, some invisible. Usually, we are active participants, but too often we aren't. The stream of time flows forever, but the journey upon it is short and undefined.
Warren Zevon was dying of cancer when he made his last appearance on the David Letterman show. His parting advice was simple but powerful--"Enjoy every sandwich."
Make mine a Reuben.
Marie, my CAT scan technician ,wouldn't stop laughing when I started to sing "CAT scan" to the Batman theme. Honestly, they let cancer patients get away with anything these days....
A lot of smiles Thursday at MSK. The latest scan was pretty good. They can't see the cancer anymore in my liver, and the pancreatic tumor continues to shrink, almost 90% since last summer. My doctor feels I'm exceeding expectations and we will keep those chemo appointments for the time being. Overall, I feel pretty good. Yet, more progress is necessary before declaring victory. Onward.
A lot of people come up to me and say they admire my positive attitude. Well, let me share a little secret. I'm a super competitive person (that could have started when me and my three brothers sat at the dinner table quickly grabbing food before it was gone). Let me give you an example. Throughout treatment, I have actually pushed myself to see how much I could eat, despite the nausea. It wasn't always fun, but gradually, my body started getting the message.
I can get easily bored without challenges. I guess God wanted to see what would happen if he threw a challenge at me for all the marbles.
And that maybe one of the reasons why I found "The Good Place" so appealing. I don't want to give away any spoilers now that the show has reached one of the most satisfying conclusions I have seen. The show was grounded on eye-opening philosophical and theological notions that tackle the most challenging moral issues of all. In a beautiful dance, four misguided humans and a reformed demon asked big questions and more. I'll be thinking about Chidi's Buddist "wave" analogy for a very long time (no more details from last night's finale, trust me).
Maybe we shouldn't have eaten from the tree of knowledge, and life might have been happier if we hadn't been kicked out Eden (the original Brexit, perhaps), but I don't think so. We are restless, thinking creatures, and it is healthy for us to ask the fundamental questions of why belong, what is our role in the universe, why is there an "end," and why would the Great Creator put mosquitos on the earth in the first place?
I do get teased a lot because I like to assume positive intent in others. It doesn't mean I'm not a skeptic or cynic (just listen to the Impeachment hearings). But we need to give people permission to ask big questions. Who will win the Super Bowl? Who is your favorite candidate for president? Will I really be healthy if I eat the Impossible Whopper? The important thing is that we need to give ourselves permission to listen openly to the answers, even when we don't disagree.
I don't ask God why I have cancer. We just keep our discussion on more important topics--like how I should live. I expect that conversation to continue a little while longer.