Laughing cancer away

Comedian Robert Schimmel will appear at Diesel, A Bookstore to read from his book, "Cancer on $5 A Day-Chemo Not Included," March 26.

Successfully riding the wave of standup comedy, Robert Schimmel was diagnosed with cancer- the comedian decided to approach his treatment with the same survival tools that shaped his entire professional life: laughter.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Cancer is not usually a laughing matter. But you wouldn’t know it from Robert Schimmel’s take on his cancer experience, which he describes in his candid and surprisingly funny new book, “Cancer On $5 A Day-Chemo Not Included,” cowritten with Alan Eisenstock.

A nationally applauded standup comic, Schimmel will be reading excerpts from his memoir at Diesel, A Bookstore on March 26.

“I love Diesel,” Schimmel said. “They have great kids’ books and when I get home from a tour, we all pile into bed and read.”

That would be with sons Sam, 4, and Max, 3.

“Max Schimmel,” his father riffed, “it’s the name of either a comedian or a bookie.”

Son Max’s arrival was all but deemed impossible eight years ago following a brutal round of chemotherapy that wrested every ounce of strength, courage and faith Robert Schimmel could muster.

In June of 2000, Schimmel’s star was literally set to explode onto the national scene. He was listed as one of Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Standup Comics Of All Time, his HBO special was a hit and Fox had picked up his series.

Then came the diagnosis of Stage III non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and orders for immediate chemotherapy. Followed were six months of agonizing, nauseous, anxiety-ridden existence dealing with searing throat polyps, hemorrhoids, paralyzing fatigue and watching his eyebrows wash down the drain, with no guarantees of a positive outcome.

Schimmel decided to approach his treatment with the same survival tools that shaped his entire professional life: laughter.

“I don’t know where I’d be today without my cancer,” Schimmel said. “My priorities are all changed and I think I connect better with my audiences now.”

To Schimmel, having cancer was a humiliating, yet humanizing experience.

“If you ask most people what they like about a comic, they say, ‘He’s funny,'” Schimmel said. “But I look at a comedian and ask, ‘What kind of s*** happened to this guy to make him so funny?’ When the audience knows your persona, they’re with you.”

Schimmel was no stranger to cancer, having lost a son to the disease several years ago.

“I used to pray every night to give me cancer so Derek’s would go into remission,” Schimmel reflected. “It didn’t work for Derek, but I talked myself into getting sick”-evidence for Schimmel of the ultimate power of the mind.

Schimmel’s family rallied around him for the chemo treatments, including his first wife and mother to sons Derek and Jacob, and two daughters, Jessica and Aliyah. Despite their bitter divorce following Derek’s death, his ex stepped forward and offered to care for Schimmel during treatment so he could remain close to his children.

During his treatment, he would bring doughnuts to the nurses and rib the other patients, leaving the usually morose treatment center ringing with laughter.

“My nurses told me they could tell who was going to make it because of their attitudes,” Schimmel said. “And when you come down to it, everyone has something overwhelming in their life. Mine just happened to be cancer. How you deal with it is what defines your life.”

For Schimmel, “dealing with it” meant giving any kind of alternative treatment a shot, from Reiki to acupuncture to “crystal therapy.” As he wrote in his book, the connective theme to all treatments seemed to be that his therapists all played CDs of pop composer Yanni during sessions.

“I know today what cured me of cancer,” he wrote. “It was Yanni.”

He is particularly close to his parents who are Holocaust survivors. They endured the loss of their grandson and watched their son facing death, holding up with a macabre sense of humor that Schimmel shares.

“My mother, who practices transcendental meditation, gave me her personal mantra and couldn’t understand when it didn’t work for me,” he said.

Schimmel’s agents were not so keen to see him recount his cancer adventure for publication at first.

“But it profoundly changed my life and in the most positive way,” Schimmel said. “I remember walking on the beach one morning at low tide and seeing the most amazing colorful shells and animals. It made me think that people have high and low tides. And when they are at low tide, sometimes the most beautiful things are revealed.”

In a seven-year remission, Schimmel now tours comedy clubs almost every weekend. But when he’s home with his wife of five years, Melissa, and their sons, he turns off the cell phone and remembers what’s important.

“You don’t have to be in a 12-step program to understand the Serenity Prayer,” Schimmel said. “It might not be cancer, but you learn to accept the things you can’t change and change the things you can. My cancer was a gift.”

Robert Schimmel will read from his book at Diesel, A Bookstore on March 26 at 7 p.m. More information can be obtained by calling 310.456.9961.