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Seattle author finds the horror and the humor in a cancer diagnosis
Twelve years ago, New York comedian Glenn Rockowitz was about to become a father. He was also about to die.
At 28, Rockowitz was diagnosed with aggressive, late-stage cancer. His doctor handed him a three-month prognosis and no hope at all. Rockowitz hid the news from his expectant wife and underwent treatment, but traditional chemotherapy didn’t work. Then a chance at experimental treatment came along, and something no one thought could happen did: He lived.
Rockowitz moved to Seattle after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (There was a “constant fear” in Manhattan and the new father had enough to worry about.)
He has faced cancer three additional times since his original diagnosis in 1998; it has stolen his right kidney and taken the life of his father.
But Rockowitz has launched a return volley: He has exposed the gritty reality (and incidental humor) of receiving a cancer diagnosis and living with cancer in the body in his strikingly honest memoir “Rodeo in Joliet.” He will share those experiences and his book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 27, at Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge.
When Rockowitz was diagnosed with cancer in 1998, it was like catching a baseball in the face. He’d had no lumps, no bumps. Nothing.
“It wasn’t just the fact that I was being given a cancer diagnosis, because that’s terrifying as it is, but I wasn’t symptomatic,” he said. “I didn’t know how to live from that moment on. I was in shock.”
Seated at the Seattle ferry docks, Rockowitz talks cancer — a word he often grows tired of hearing. He wears a pair of Converse, a canvas jacket and a wry sense of humor. He cracks one about his book and the plot-spoilers that come inherent to his promotional tour: “Well here’s the shocker,” he says, “I actually passed away years ago.”
Two years before his diagnosis, then-New Yorker Rockowitz founded The Best Medicine Group, an organization that brought live comedy shows to the homes of inbound, terminally ill cancer patients. He saw people in the last days of their lives, and watched the relief humor brought them.
Not long after Rockowitz was diagnosed, his father was given a mean diagnosis as well: Pancreatic cancer. It took his life swiftly, and he passed away just month’s after Rockowitz’s own diagnosis. The day of his father’s funeral, Rockowitz learned of his own remission.
It was then he wrote the first 100 pages of “Rodeo in Joliet,” a book named for a prison ritual that swindles new inmates into thinking they’ve seen the worst of prison roughery before giving them another beating.
“It’s become the perfect metaphor,” Rockowitz said.
He finished the book early in 2008, after two more battles with unique cancers.
“I wanted to finish it not as a book to be published, but for my son,” he said. His son is now 11. The book was released by Bennett & Hastings earlier this year, and Rockowitz recently sold the film rights to director Matt Aselton, who last directed Edward Asner and John Goodman in 2008’s “Gigantic.” He and Rockowitz are currently working on the screenplay.
Now in six months of good health, Rockowitz is also working on a followup to “Rodeo in Joliet.” His writing, he hopes, provides a different take than the “sugar-coated and Oprah-fied” cancer literature that’s currently gifted to the newly diagnosed.
“Every time I’ve been sick, people have given me books,” Rockowitz said. “But I don’t feel like there have been honest books about [cancer].”
He purposefully doesn’t name the cancer he had in “Rodeo in Joliet.”
“I didn’t want that to dilute the experience for people,” he said. Any diagnosis, from a late-stage lymphoma to a cancerous mole, can be world-shaking. His book is for all; it doesn’t focus on his treatment, but on the emotional wreckage that collects in one’s life once a doctor pinpoints the ailment.
“That initial reaction is universal,” he added. “When you hear those words you can’t help but have your whole world blur.”
Rockowitz, 39, now lives an odd paradox: He has a constant, low-grade fear of recurrence, but a simultaneous fearlessness. He remains grateful to be above ground.
“It puts real perspective on everything, because there’s this ticking clock that’s very loud,” he said. “I feel like I need to do everything I want to do for the world.”
Immediately after saying this, he laughs at himself. His experimental treatment, which saved his life, taught him the inconsequentiality of humanity; during the study he became nothing but a number, and he either landed in this column or that one.
But that hasn’t stopped him from building a new nonprofit coalition that acts as an advocate for cancer patients. He issues a rally cry for adolescents and young adults afflicted with cancer, a group he’s found himself in on more than one occasion: There are 75,000 new diagnoses among ages 15-40 each year, he said, and the survival rate for the age group hasn’t increased since 1975.
“I can’t believe that I’m alive and that I have this kind of distance from the actual event,” he said. “I wish that my life wasn’t in some part defined by [cancer], and I hate that it is. But I have never wished I didn’t have it.”
To learn more, visit rodeoinjoliet.com. WU