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What 'Cancer! The Musical' Doesn't Tell You About Having Cancer

'Cancer! The Musical' is witty and fun, but there's no trace of the anger or raw emotion involved in being a cancer patient.

by H. Alan Scott
Sep 21 2015, 9:15pm

Photo via Cancer! The Musical/Facebook

Nine times out of ten, when I tell someone I've had cancer, they tell me about a person they knew who had cancer... and died. It's a nearly constant reminder of my own mortality, an ominous nod to the fact that I could have died.

The thing is, no one ever actually tells you, "You have cancer." That's not the word they use. Instead, doctors say they've "found a mass," or an area they're "concerned about." On the day I was told about the "mass" growing in my testicle, I asked the doctor, "So, cancer?" He was quick to say that he wasn't sure and that everything would be fine. But in my head I pictured myself becoming bald, pale, and skinny. I thought about dying. I thought about erasing my browser history.

The surgery to remove the "mass" was followed by a short period of recovery and then a much longer period of chemotherapy. Three different drugs were pumped into my body six hours a day, five days a week, in various cycles over the course of several months. I lost my hair. I lost sensation in my fingers. I couldn't sleep. And contrary to a universally considered perk of chemo, I gained weight instead of losing it. But those were just the physical side effects, which is just one part of what makes cancer so miserable, and which Cancer! The Musical, glosses over with humor.

Cancer! The Musical, which opened last week at the Second City Theater in Los Angeles, tells the story of a researcher who believes he has the cure for cancer, a rival pharmaceutical exec who wants to steal it, and a surgeon who needs it to save the woman he loves. Written by Tom Donnellon, a cancer survivor and surgeon with HOPE Surgical, and his brother, Shawn Handlon, with musical direction by John Edwartowski,Cancer! is clever and—against all odds—genuinely funny.

The musical was created under the premise that "laughter is the best medicine," that in in the face of grave illness, sometimes you just have to laugh. But if I had to sum up my own experience with cancer, the word I'd use is "anger." I was angry at the doctors, the nurses, my body. I don't remember a moment when I wasn't angry—even months after chemo had finished and I attempted to return to my "normal" life. It wasn't a literal screamfest type of anger, but rather the kind that lives deep down inside, the type that lingers for a hot minute until it consumes you.

I looked for traces of that anger in Cancer!, but I never found it. I'm willing to concede that my desire for anger in a musical theater rendition of cancer could be a manifestation of my own PTSD—but it also seemed to be a missed opportunity to connect with cancer survivors in a deeper, more visceral way.

It's possible that the anger is missing because the story of Cancer!is told from the medical perspective, rather than that of the patient—a choice that makes the narrative both compelling and troubling. Pharmaceutical companies are a presence in the lives of all cancer patients, who are acutely aware that money is what moves medicine, not health.

In Cancer! the evil pharmaceutical executive tries to kill a rival who finds the cure for cancer, but has a change of heart when he, like every one in two Americans, finds out he actually has cancer. Instead of finding a way to make a profit off this new miracle, he just gets shot (long story, you'll have to see it). What could've been an opportunity to explore how patients get screwed over—and literally killed—by corporate greed becomes part of the hokey musical theater plot, never actually addressing the issue.

Read: Why a $54,000 Cancer Treatment in 1995 Now Goes for $200,000

I experienced this greed firsthand midway through my chemo treatment. "We want you to be aware that it's likely your health insurance won't cover the cost of this shot," a nurse told me, after much deliberation between her and my oncologist. They were determining whether my white blood cells were low enough to warrant the dose of Neulasta, a drug used to boost chemo patients' white blood cell count so they can be strong enough to continue the chemo regimens.

"How much is it?" I asked.

"Between $6,000 and $9,000," the nurse responded.

I weighed my options. Take the shot, take on more debt, but feel immensely better—or suffer through the rest of chemo and hope I didn't get sicker, which would force me to stop treatment until my white blood cells were back to healthy levels.

I told them to do it, watching imaginary money signs float behind the nurse as she twirled away, closing the curtain that offered me "privacy."

More than the misery of chemotherapy or the will it takes to survive treatment, the most commonly shared experience among cancer patients is the financial impact of dealing with the disease.

The shot cost me $8,767. And here's what's really troubling: Neulasta is made by Amgen, a pharmaceutical company that posted revenue of $20 billion in 2014. This January, the company reported a quarterly profit of $1.29 billion, up 27 percent thanks to sales growth of "key drugs."Meanwhile, someone is sitting in a chemo center right now being told that their Neulasta shot now costs $10,000.

Dancing lab rats. Photo via Cancer! The Musical on Facebook

Cancer! does not address situations like these, which affect millions of people suffering through cancer treatment each year. More than the misery of chemotherapy or the will it takes to survive treatment, the most commonly shared experience among cancer patients is the financial impact of dealing with the disease. For a large number of people diagnosed with cancer, the only thing they're thinking about is how they're going to pay for it. Which makes sense, when you consider that medical bills are the single biggest cause of bankruptcy in the United States.

Watch our HBO special report on "Killing Cancer."

Two years after finishing my chemo treatment, I'm still paying for it. And judging by the state of my career, I'll be paying for it for a very long time. If my cancer comes back, or a new form of cancer emerges in my body—the possibility of this is higher for me because the chemo drugs I received have a high rate of causing another form of cancer—I don't know what I'll do.

This reality doesn't scare me—it just makes me angry. I'm 33, I've worked hard to build a decently successful life, I feel I have a lot going for me. Why should I have to worry about going under financiallyjust because my body is working against me? Where is that politician who will stand up to these huge pharmaceutical companies, which see each person diagnosed with cancer every 30 seconds as just another higher profit?

Cancer! could have explored these questions, but it didn't. There are a lot of things the musical gets right: The warped relationship between pharmaceutical companies and doctors, and the sometimes blatant lack of emotion doctors express towards patients. On a purely artistic level, the music is catchy, the jokes are solid, and the performances are great. But in finding a creative way to address an extremely difficult issue, the show misses the raw emotional response to having cancer, and the financial desperation that comes afterward. Because let's be real, you can only tell so many Mr. Clean jokes before people start to get uncomfortable.

Cancer! The Musical runs until December 17 at the Second City Theater in Hollywood.

Follow H. Alan Scott on Twitter.

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